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

24 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.

**COVID-19 — Group of 20

Good afternoon.  A couple of organizational notes.  Just as a reminder, please mute your microphones.  If you have any questions put them in a text box next to the video and Florencia [Soto Nino] will relate them to me.  I am in touch with our technical colleagues from the TV at BCSS [Building and Conference Support Services], who have been doing an amazing job keeping us live, to see if we can move to a format where I can take live audio questions.  But, that will require a lot of discipline on your end to make sure that microphones are muted.  Anyway, we will try to do that the next time we have a briefing.

So, starting up with the news, ahead of the virtual meeting of the Group of 20 (G20) leaders this week, the Secretary-General has written them a letter in which he calls for concerted and decisive action on the current global health crisis that spreads human suffering and upends the global economy.  The Secretary‑General called for a “war-time” plan, urging G20 leaders to step forward with a strong response package to address the various threats posed by COVID-19 to demonstrate solidary with the world’s people – especially the most vulnerable.

The Secretary-General called on the G20 to address three critical areas.  First, he stressed the need for coordination and cooperation to suppress the virus.  Second, he said we must minimize the social and economic impact of COVID‑19 and stimulate a faster recovery everywhere.  Lastly, he underscored that we must reaffirm our common responsibility to recover better, with more inclusive and sustainable models of development.  This crisis, he said, is a stark reminder of humanity’s common fate and the need for upfront investments to reduce the catastrophic downstream risks of the pandemic.

And you saw yesterday, the Secretary-General spoke to you, and he called for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world in the face of the common COVID-19 enemy.  The virus, he said, does not care about nationality or ethnicity, faction or faith.  The most vulnerable — women and children, people with disabilities, the marginalized and the displaced — are also at the highest risk of suffering devastating losses from COVID-19.  The Secretary-General noted that in war-ravaged countries, health systems have collapsed.  The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war, he added, stating that it is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.

**COVID-19 — Global Humanitarian Response Plan

Tomorrow at 10 a.m., the Secretary-General will launch the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, which aims to provide assistance to save lives in the most vulnerable countries, while containing the outbreak globally.  This, as you can now expect, will be a virtual event that you will be able to watch right here on UN Web TV (http://webtv.un.org) and other channels.  The Secretary-General will also be joined virtually by Mark Lowcock, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus], the Director-General of World Health Organization (WHO), and Henrietta Fore, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director.  We will make the opening remarks and other background material, as well as the Response Plan… we will share it with you under embargo later today.  You will then be able to submit your questions in writing beforehand, which will then be submitted to the four participants, as they speak to you live tomorrow.  The questions will need to be submitted before 9 a.m. tomorrow morning, but all the details will be in an email that we will send out to you.

**COVID-19 — Human Rights

Turning to COVID-19 and human rights.  From Geneva, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, today said that broad sectoral sanctions should urgently be re-evaluated in countries facing the COVID-19 pandemic.  These sanctions could have a potentially debilitating impact on the health sector and human rights, she said.  She added that, in a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us, calling for humanitarian exemptions to sanctions measures.

For his part, the Secretary-General fully backs the High Commissioner’s sentiments.  He has been in touch with a number of Member States, including those who have imposed sanctions.  Regarding Iran, the Secretary-General received a call from Foreign Minister Javad Zarif earlier this week to discuss the matter.  The Secretary-General is aware of the shortage of medicine and medical equipment in Iran that makes it more difficult to contain the outbreak.  He appeals to all members of the international community to facilitate and support Iran’s efforts at this critical moment.

**COVID-19 — World Food Programme

And as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, the World Food Programme (WFP) is also looking to pre-position buffer stocks of food or cash to provide at least three months of food assistance to vulnerable people in priority countries.  The agency’s main focus is to ensure that it has the resources in place to address the food and nutrition needs of 87 million people it plans to assist in 2020.  WFP appealed to Government partners to approve an estimated $1.9 billion of contributions to the agency’s food assistance programmes.  They are also asking for maximum flexibility in the way that resources are used, allowing for a dynamic response to the changing outlook.  As an example of the agency’s support, the spokesperson for WFP explained how they deployed a team of supply chain experts to WHO Headquarters in Geneva and in Iran, and provided a two-month supply of personal protection equipment for more than 2,000 staff and volunteers from the Iranian Red Crescent Society.

**COVID-19 — Kenya

And turning to Kenya.  The UN team, led by WHO, has been working closely with the Government in the response to COVID-19.  WHO experts have been integrated in the national COVID-19 technical and coordination committees since mid-January.  More than 20 UN staff members have been seconded to Government teams, including in the area of communication to help disseminate prevention messages at national and local levels.  UNICEF and other UN entities are also helping the Government on emergency procurement, while WHO is sourcing lab kits to increase stocks.  The UN Resident Coordinator has also set up an inter-agency team with the Government, the European Union, the World Bank and other partners to support the Government with analysis of the impacts of COVID-19.

**COVID-19 — Democratic Republic of the Congo

Turning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo:  With cases of COVID-19 now confirmed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and humanitarian community are mobilizing to support the Government’s response.  In a context with a fragile health infrastructure, the Humanitarian Coordinator, David McLachlan-Karr, said efforts undertaken today to prevent the spread of the virus must apply throughout the national territory to help avoid a major health crisis.  People in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continue to face one of the most complex humanitarian crises in the world and could further endanger the lives of millions of Congolese who are already at particular risk.  Also this morning, the Security Council members are hearing updates by VTC [video teleconference] on MONUSCO and Special Representatives [Laila] Zerrougui as well the Under‑Secretary‑General, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, and that has been done virtually.

**COVID-19 — South Sudan

 And from South Sudan, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has put in place a seven-day freeze on staff traveling into the country as part of efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 virus.  Cargo flights into the country will continue.  Rotations of military peacekeepers were stopped on 4 March, well before the onset of the pandemic, and all upcoming rotations have been put on hold.  The UN Mission is committed to maintaining its activities to protect civilians and to build durable peace to the best of its ability, given the challenges posed by COVID-19.

**COVID-19 — General Assembly

Just to flag something on behalf of the President of the General Assembly.  In a letter to the Member States, the President of the General Assembly presented a proposal for how the General Assembly can take essential decisions related to the Organization while dealing with the pandemic.  He submitted a draft decision that would enable the General Assembly to adopt essential decisions under a silence procedure.  If a plenary meeting of the General Assembly is not practicable due to the pandemic, the proposal would authorize the President of the GA to circulate, after consultation with the General Committee, draft decisions of the Assembly to all Member States under a silence procedure of at least 72 hours.  If the silence is not broken, the decision shall be considered adopted.  That draft decision is itself under silence procedure, until noon on Friday.

**COVID-19 — United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

And the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) is launching an “Observatory on Border Crossings Status due to COVID-19”, which will gather all updated information regarding border crossings limitations worldwide.  The aim is to facilitate the work of transport operators and preserve connectivity by keeping supply chains open as much as possible.

**COVID-19 — Syria

And the Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, today followed the Secretary-General’s appeal for an immediate ceasefire around the world by calling for a complete, immediate nationwide ceasefire throughout Syria to enable an all‑out effort to suppress COVID-19.  He said that Syrians are acutely vulnerable to the virus, with the healthcare facilities having been destroyed or degraded and a shortage of key medical equipment and health professionals.  To confront the danger, he said, the long-suffering Syrian people desperately need a sustained period of calm throughout the country respected by all parties.  Mr. Pedersen also appealed on humanitarian grounds for large scale releases of detainees and abductees.  The full statement has been shared with you earlier today.

**Chad

Turning to Chad:  The Humanitarian Response Plan was published today, the one for 2020, which is seeking $545.3 million — a little over $69 million more than last year’s appeal — to help 3 million of the most vulnerable people in the country.  Continued conflict in neighbouring countries, and increased insecurity, due to non-State armed group’s activities in the Lake Chad area, have displaced over 650,000 people on the Chadian territory.  Thousands of people have been displaced multiple times for over a decade with little prospect to return home in the near future.  Malnutrition levels are also concerning with rates of severe malnutrition at 2.9 per cent above the emergency threshold.

**Senior Personnel Appointments

Two senior appointments to tell you about today.  The Secretary-General is appointing Deborah Lyons of Canada as the new Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).  Ms. Lyons succeeds Tadamichi Yamamoto of Japan, who has served in this critical role since 2016.  The Secretary-General is grateful for Mr. Yamamoto’s important contribution and service to the UN Mission since taking up his role as Deputy Special Representative in 2014 and then as Special Representative.  Ms. Lyons is a diplomat with 21 years of professional experience and in international cooperation and economic development.  Most recently she served as Ambassador of Canada to Israel and from 2013 until 2016 as Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

The Secretary-General is also appointing Guang Cong of the People’s Republic of China as his new Deputy Special Representative (Political Affairs) for South Sudan and Deputy Head of the UN Mission in South Sudan.  Mr. Cong succeeds Moustapha Soumaré of Mali, to whom the Secretary-General is grateful for his distinguished service in South Sudan.  Mr. Cong brings vast experience of international affairs to the position, including service with several United Nations peace operations.

**Tuberculosis

And lastly, today is World Tuberculosis Day.  The World Health Organization today issued recommendations that will help countries accelerate efforts to stop people infected with tuberculosis from becoming sick with tuberculosis by giving them preventive treatment.  A quarter of the world’s population is estimated to be infected with tuberculosis bacteria.  And there is a message from Dr. Tedros on this.  So, at this point, I will look to your questions, and we'll see what we can answer.

**Questions and Answers

Stand by one second.  Well, obviously… Pam asked if world leaders have responded to the SG's call for a ceasefire.

The Secretary‑General's special envoys, his representatives on the ground, as Mr. Pedersen will be doing and as Mr. [Martin] Griffiths had already done in Yemen, will be putting out that message to all the parties involved.  And we very much hope that results will be seen, for what is really a very basic and obvious call for a ceasefire.

Kyoto:  Japanese Government agreed to postpone the summer Olympics about a year.

You know, I think it… this is a decision having been made by the IOC [International Olympic Committee] and the Japanese Government, not one that involves the Secretary‑General, but it seems to us a very wise decision to take in light of the pandemic and the need for continued social distancing in order to break the curve.

Maria:  Yesterday, we received information that there are no Security Council meetings.  At the same time, there's one in which there is informal consultations.  Under these circumstances…

All right.  I think it is best for you to contact the presidency of the Security Council to get the exact description of what… under what format they're actually meeting and what outcome you will expect for them.  There are, obviously, discussions within members of the Security Council, and I think the Council can best speak for itself.

Pam, I think we've had a statement on Afghanistan following the elections on the current situation, and I would refer you to that.

From Edie:  The Secretary‑General is making very ambitious requests to the G20 leaders.  Did he speak to any of them before sending the letter to gauge reactions?  When is the virtual…?

The G20 meeting, my understanding, is taking place early Thursday morning… early Thursday morning, New York time.  The Secretary‑General will participate by video conference.  I think, as every… all the other leaders will take.  We hope to share with you a bit of the remarks the Secretary‑General will deliver.  Yes, it is… the request is, indeed, very bold, but I think, as the Secretary‑General makes clear, it is some… if there is one event in which we need international solidarity, it is this.  Unless the virus is stamped out everywhere, none of us will be safe.  It is critical that the financial packages being put out do not just address the liquidity issue, but also address how to build more inclusive and more sustainable economies, how to keep people and small businesses afloat.  These are very ambitious asks, but we know the will needs to be there; the resources are there.  It is a matter of the international community coming together to beat a virus which knows no border.  You know, for… we very often talk about climate change and pandemics that know no borders.  This is such a clear illustration of a problem that needs international solidarity and international cooperation.

Iftikhar, no, I have no… we've seen the press reports on the US action to cut $1 billion in aid.  I have no comment at this point.  We'll have to look into it.

On the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty], I believe it was postponed, but I do have to check again.

James asks, on Iran, after the call with Foreign Minister [Javad] Zarif, does the SG plan to speak with the US Administration?

The Secretary‑General, as I said, has had contacts with various countries that have imposed sanctions, including the United States, and I think the message that he is saying publicly is also the message he is addressing privately to those countries.

How many swipes in the building, asks Dulcie.

I will tell you in about two seconds, if you bear with me.  There were very few swipes, and I will tell you in a second, if you don't mind.  Sorry.  Excuse me.  All right.  The swipes today, as of 11 a.m., was about 130, and that is down from 11,000 the last day that we had at the UN without any restrictions.  The Secretary‑General is reducing his time in the building.  He's working partly from home and partly from the building.  The UN is following the restrictions put in place by New York State.  All non-essential personnel are tasked to work from home.  There are, obviously, some essential personnel that need to stay in the building, notably those technicians who enable us to have these briefings or these virtual press conferences. 

The latest numbers of UN staff throughout the system that have… are confirmed is 51.  That's the latest number as of today.  I do not have an update on David Beasley, but last we heard, he was doing well and working from his home in South Carolina.  I know of no other UN senior official, boss who has… agency head who has the virus.

Abdelhamid asks if Tunisia called for a special meeting of the Council.

You would have to ask the Council presidency.

James asked if Secretariat please stressed to the Security Council members the need for their meetings to be public and webcast, and are there technical arrangements made for virtual stakeout?

We will be taking the lead from the Security Council.  Obviously, I think all of us would want as great as transparency… the same transparency you have when we are in the building to be replicated as best as possible in a virtual world.  I think that's it unless I get another question.

Perfect.  We will see all… so, just as a reminder, the Secretary‑General will do the launch tomorrow of the Humanitarian [Response Plan], which means we will not have a Noon Briefing.  We'll have another Noon Briefing at noon on Thursday.  By then, we hope to have addressed the issues of getting direct questions from you.

Dulcie says:  Council presidency, they're not communicating.

You have… there's no alternative than to go to the Council… the presidency of the UN Security Council.  We are not able to speak on their behalf.

Oscar, I think I answered the question about the ceasefire.

And, Yoshita, I think every… it's important that every country take whatever precautions they need in order to not only bend but break the curve.  Thank you, all, and see you Thursday.

For information media. Not an official record.