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6 April 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.

**Syria/Board of Inquiry

On Syria, the Secretary-General has released a summary of the investigation by the Board of Inquiry on Syria.

As you will recall, the Secretary-General established this Board of Inquiry in August 2019 to investigate incidents that occurred in north-west Syria since the signing of the Memorandum on Stabilization of the Situation in the Idlib De-escalation Area between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Turkey, and that was on 17 September 2018.

The investigation covered the destruction of, or damage to, facilities on the deconfliction list and UN-supported facilities in the area.

In a letter to the Security Council, the Secretary-General said he is considering the Board’s recommendations, with some complex issues raised including the question of which parties to the conflict should be given information intended to support deconfliction.

The Secretary-General noted that he will appoint a senior independent adviser on how to address the Board’s recommendations.

He stressed that the impact of the hostilities on civilian and humanitarian sites in north-west Syria is a clear reminder of the importance for all parties to the conflict to observe and ensure respect for international humanitarian law.  These include the obligations at all times to distinguish between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and to direct attacks only against combatants and military objectives.

**COVID-19/Syria

Staying on the topic of Syria, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that the Syrian Government has now confirmed 19 cases of COVID-19, including two deaths.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is leading UN efforts to support the preparations and mitigation measures across Syria.  The UN is also supporting Syria with testing and surveillance, providing protective equipment and training of health workers, and working with communities, health workers and other partners to disseminate messages on prevention and protection.

As the UN and humanitarian partners work around the clock to support [the] response, they face additional challenges as the result of nine years of crisis.  These include a fragile health system; insufficient water and sanitation infrastructure; limited access to some areas due to ongoing hostilities; and the impact of sanctions; as well as global travel restrictions.

Yesterday, the UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, Imran Riza, as well as the UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, Kevin Kennedy, expressed their deep concern over persistent interruption to essential services, particularly those vital to safeguard community health against the virus.

**Secretary-General on Violence against Women

And, as you will have seen, the Secretary-General released a statement on gender-based violence and COVID-19.

He made an appeal for peace at home — and in homes — around the world, stating that for many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be the safest — in their own homes.

He said that, over the past weeks, as economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying global surge in domestic violence.  In some countries, the number of women calling support services has doubled.  Some domestic violence shelters are closed and others are full.

Mr. Guterres urged all Governments to make the [prevention] and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.  “Together, we can and must prevent violence everywhere, from war zones to people’s homes, as we work to beat the virus,” he added.

Our colleagues at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), based in Beirut, today also cautioned that the pandemic has worsened domestic violence and social challenges faced by women and girls in the Arab region.

The Commission’s Executive Secretary, Rola Dashti, warned that increasing food insecurity will not only place women and girls at heightened risk of domestic violence with rising household tensions, but that it will also reduce their immunity to the virus.

**COVID-19 Funding

And an update on the global humanitarian response plan: it has now received $396.5 million out of a $2 billion asked for.

And the UN COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund, launched by the Secretary-General last week, has not formally received any funding yet, but I have been told that there is cash making its way through the UN pipeline.

**COVID-19/Kosovo

And turning to Kosovo, this Sunday, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN mission in the country, Zahir Tanin, warned about the importance of addressing human rights challenges that arise in the ongoing health crisis created by the pandemic as well as measures to contain it.

Mr. Tanin encouraged all institutions and stakeholders to remain vigilant for possible instances of stigmatization and discrimination related to combating the virus and called for an inclusive response to ensure that no one is left behind.

He also reiterated the recent call of the Kosovo Agency for Personal Data Protection to respect patients’ rights to privacy and refrain from disclosing their personal information, including by the media.

**COVID-19/Ukraine

A joint UN convoy in Ukraine, involving the UNHCR [UN refugee agency], the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) arrived last Friday in Donetsk, in the Non-Government Controlled Area in eastern Ukraine.

In response to the pandemic, the convoy delivered medical supplies, 14,000 personal protective equipment items for health-care facilities, and child-care items for 1,250 families.

The 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan for Ukraine requires $192 million, of which $34 million is for COVID-19 in eastern Ukraine.  However, the plan is only 5 per cent funded so far.

Some 3.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in the country, including 1.9 million people in the eastern part of Ukraine.

**COVID-19/Brazil

Turning to Brazil, the UN team there is working with partners at the national and local levels to leave no one behind to prevent and respond to COVID-19.  The UN is supporting a national plan to prevent infection among indigenous communities, which includes stepping up the surveillance actions for acute respiratory problems, an effort led by the Pan-American Health Organization.  The first COVID-19 case was confirmed among an indigenous woman in the Amazon region last week.

The UN — including UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration — as well as our partners, are also supporting refugees and host communities by disseminating prevention information, distributing hygiene and cleaning kits, and providing technical advice to public authorities dealing with the pandemic.  They are also addressing the needs of migrants and refugees from Venezuela, with UN-backed health experts deployed to States that border Venezuela, along with messages in Spanish that complement the national campaign in Portuguese.

Also, UNAIDS is circulating information on COVID-19 prevention for people living with HIV/AIDS via social media and working with public health authorities to ensure the availability of crucial medication for people living with HIV.

For its part, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) is working with judges to adopt non-custodial measures for pregnant and lactating women and mothers of young children, people with disabilities, indigenous people and other high-risk groups.  This partnership also includes recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, including reassessing preventive arrests that exceed 90 days and applying special measures in overcrowded prisons.

**COVID-19/International Labour Conference

The International Labour Organization said today that due to the ongoing pandemic, the upcoming session of the annual International Labour Conference, originally scheduled to start on 25 May in Geneva, is being deferred.

The 109th session of the Conference will now take place in June 2021.

As a consequence of this decision, the associated 338th and 339th sessions of the ILO Governing Body, also scheduled for May and June respectively, will also not take place.

Despite the deferral of the Conference, the ILO and all its offices around the world are operational and will continue to work closely with their constituents, development partners and the multilateral system.

**COVID-19/Sport

Today is the UN International Day of Sport for [Development and Peace].  To mark the Day with the UN, the World Health Organization (WHO) and FIFA have joined forces in supporting the #BeActive campaign, launched to encourage people to be #HealthyAtHome as the world comes together to fight the virus, today and every day.

WHO recommends that all healthy adults do at least 30 minutes a day of physical activity and children at least 60 minutes a day.  Among the suggestions of the campaign, as a way to stay healthy at home, are activities like dancing, skipping and online exercise classes, and also listening to press briefings.

The Secretary-General said that FIFA has asked the football community to show solidarity and put their rivalries aside, with a video campaign being published on FIFA digital channels.

The SG emphasized that this is an important lesson, not only for today, but every day.

**Education Cannot Wait

And we also have an update on the Education Cannot Wait, the UN fund that promotes education in emergencies.

Over the weekend, the fund announced a series of emergency grants, totalling $23 million, to provide education services to protect and support vulnerable girls and boys facing the COVID-19 pandemic in 26 crisis-affected countries. 

This funding will provide support for children to continue learning while their schools are closed, including though a scaling up of distance education programmes, particularly via interactive radio.

The funds will also support information campaigns, as well as upgrades of water and sanitation facilities in schools.

**Yemen

And, in other news, turning to Yemen, our humanitarian colleagues there tell us that, yesterday, six women, including a child, and at least 11 people were injured when shelling hit a women’s section of a prison in Taizz Governorate.  The number of casualties is likely higher.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that, at the time of the attack, there were reportedly no armed clashes between warring parties in the area.

Furthermore, she said [there was] no apparent military presence in the vicinity of the prison.

The Humanitarian Coordinator, Lise Grande, said a strike like this, which results in the killing and injury of defenseless women and children, cannot be justified.  She called the incident an appalling breach of international humanitarian principles.

Ms. Grande also called on the parties to sit together and find a political solution.

**Vanuatu

Turning to the Pacific, our humanitarian colleagues and their partners are aiming to provide support to and in Vanuatu which was hit yesterday by tropical cyclone Harold.

A Rapid Damage Assessment Team led by the Government will be carried out as soon as the situation allows.  The UN is also providing remote support in coordination, assessments and information management.

**Financial Contribution

And finally, it gives me great pleasure today to thank our friends in San Marino, who have paid their dues in full.  That takes us to 78 fully paid up Member States.

**Questions and Answers

Let me turn in to the call-in part of the show and look at the questions that we have.

Florencia, I don't know if you have any questions to send me, but I don't see any at this point.

All right.  Here we go.

Philippe Rater says when is the meeting between… the Secretary-General and [the Security Council on] COVID-19?

That is still, that is still being worked out.

Toby Burns of NHK asks where in Syria are the COVID-19 cases and deaths?

I will check for you on that.

What is next after submitting the report of the Board of Inquiry?  This is from Abdelhamid.  So what is next about submitting the report of the Board of Inquiry on attacks on medical facilities?  What is the purpose of the report in northern Syria?  Just to [audio loss]…

The report is very clear.  As you will see from the summary, which restates the terms of reference, it is to establish the facts.  It is not a legal or judicial document.  It's, it is a summary [that] was shared with the Security Council this morning. 

A big part of, for us, of the report, is looking at the some of the internal processes that the Board highlights on a number of issues.  The Secretary-General will be taking a look at these very seriously.  A senior official will be appointed to look at, look at these and look at their implementation. 

So I think in that sense, the Board is a very important internal tool and that's exactly what a Board of Inquiry is.

When is the Secretary-General going to brief the Security Council?

Well, the Secretary-General is always ready, willing, and able to brief the Security Council.  We are waiting for confirmation on when that would happen.  It is obviously important, I think, for the Secretary-General to brief the Council.

Was the Syrian Government given an advance copy of the report?  Was Russia?  [Asks] Edie. 

I'm not aware that they were given advance copies of the summary and I don't have a reaction that they have given, I'm not aware of any reaction at this point. 

From Xinhua:  How does the Secretary-General see the status quo of international cooperation of COVID-19?  Does the Secretary-General see a role for China, which saw the first outbreak, in terms of international cooperation?

I think we are at a time where we see, we need to see renewed international cooperation in the fight against COVID-19.  I think the Secretary-General has been very clear in making that point in the various press interventions he's had in the last, in the last few weeks.  I think China, and all the countries that have been impacted, have a role to play.

It is very important that the multilateral system be used to share as much information and lessons learned as possible and to coordinate the responses.  If there was ever a time for a structured, multilateral approach to any problem, I think the COVID-19 pandemic shows that this is it. 

From Dulcie, is the UN considering moving UNGA at a later date this month?

Right now, our focus is on events in May and June.  Who knows what September will bring.

Sorry, I need to my glasses to read the questions.

What came out of the retreat of the Secretary-General?

I mean this was a, an important discussion the Secretary-General had with senior staff and hearing some outside voices and help us sharpen our, our thinking and our action moving forward on the COVID-19 response.

Question from Hussein Ibrahim:  The Houthi militias exploit the world's preoccupation with coronavirus to continue violation of Security Council resolutions.  But what is the official position of the Secretary-General about these violations?  Do you think he may have given the Houthis green light for the violations?

I don't think anyone has given any party a green light for violations.  On the contrary, the Secretary-General called for a global ceasefire and the follow-up by his envoys, notably Martin Griffiths, the message is clear that all of the parties need to resume discussions, need to sit around the table. 

The suffering of the Yemeni people is something that has been atrocious and that is continuing.  All the parties involved need to keep the interests of the Yemeni people first and foremost, and I think it would be ludicrous to say that the Secretary-General has given a green light to any party to violate anything and to continue the fighting.

David from Bloomberg:  Why does the BOI summary repeatedly say the Board found it highly probable the Government of Syria and its allies carried out the airstrike, rather than naming the only…

I think the summary speaks for itself.  The Board did not have access to Syria, as I think, as they say.  And the Board concluded and wrote its conclusion based on the available information that it had at the time.

Martin Wang:  A report says the UN is facing a dire liquidity crisis and added expenses, so do you have something new to share on these incidents?

Yes, on the financial situation.  Bear with me, because if you'll excuse me two seconds, bear with me.  My computer was asking…

Our liquidity crisis is continuing as, unfortunately, arrears at the end of 2019 had hit an all-time high and those arrears have only been cleared partially.  The, the COVID-19 is giving a rise to some unexpected spending, including supply chain distribution, construction-related costs that will have to be managed.  Officers are still assessing these.

We've asked, we've asked managers to prioritize spending and also to halt any new recruitment.  The collections for 2020 for the first quarter are, unfortunately, trailing behind estimates that we had and we're still awaiting confirmation from a number of Member States about their timing of their payment.  Those include some of the bigger paying Member States.

The bottom line for us is that we have to continue to keep expenses to a minimum to ensure cash, there's cash for salaries and invoices, both for the regular budget and for peacekeeping, and we're continuing to speak to Member States at all levels to get greater certainty on their payments.

James Bays:  All three incidents, the Board finds that it was highly probable the Assad regime and its allies carried out the bombing.  The only airpower is Russia.  Is the [Secretary-General] dismayed that a permanent member of the Security Council may have also been bombing hospitals?  Also, what is the Secretary-General's view of the Government of Syria completely failed to cooperate with this inquiry?

I think we are, it would have been a much better and much thorough process if all Member States had cooperated fully with the inquiry. 

The United Nations operates in Syria on behalf of all Member States.  We were there, the Board of Inquiry was to look at the damage done and the number of facilities funded by the UN — therefore, funded by UN Member States. 

As for naming other countries, I really have nothing more to add than what the conclusion, the summary says.  The Secretary-General is dismayed is that fighting is continuing in Syria and that the people of Syria are continuing to suffer.

Evelyn, I think I've answered the question.

Iftikhar:  All five international human rights organisations in a joint statement called for the release of Kashmir prisoners in Indian parts of Occupied Kashmir.

The Secretary-General, as we have said earlier, believes that Member States need to take a very close look at incarcerations during a time of COVID-19.  It's something the High Commissioner for Human Rights has spoken out about, and, as for the situation in Kashmir, he very much believes that any political solution must take into consideration the issue of human rights.

James asks why does the UN focus on women and indigenous groups as victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, when all data clearly shows that men are the most vulnerable groups?  Men are twice as twice as high…

James, I think, first, one doesn't mean that the other is not valid.  It is true that we have seen medical, medical reporting saying that men are more at risk.  What the Secretary-General is talking about is not the medical risk, but is that the physical risks that women are increasingly facing due to home confinement as a result of the pandemic.

And we have seen throughout the world a rise in calls to hotlines about domestic abuse for women and for girls, and that is something that is extremely worrying for the Secretary-General and that's why he put his message out.  Indigenous people are also particularly at risk in the sense that they have lived in communities that have been isolated.  So you can, you can worry about many different people at the same time.

Carrie asks we've heard that some members of the P5 are not in favour of the SG briefing the Security Council about COVID-19. 

I think that's a question asked to some members of the P5.  As I said, the Secretary-General is ready to brief the Security Council when the Security Council will ask him to do so.

James Reinl asks the report says that in some cases, OCHA gave [coordinates] only to Russia and not Turkey.  Was it done deliberately to catch Russia out?

I do not believe there was any deliberate action on the part of OCHA.  I think, as the summary shows, they make, the Board makes recommendations to OCHA and the UN on the deconflicting mechanism.  We will take those recommendations very seriously, and we will, we are, we have, as the Board shows, trying to continuously improve the way we do our, we run that process, and we will do so even more and take on board their recommendations.

Richard Roth:  Has António, the Secretary-General, been tested for the virus?

No, the Secretary-General has not been tested for the virus.

How does the UN feel COVID-19 has affected the UN's work in New York?  Can more people work from home in the future?

Look, we are, of course, very cognizant of the heavy toll the virus has taken on our host city, as we've often said.  Most of us come from different parts of the world, but we're all New Yorkers.  We have families here.  We live here.  We interact with the community, and that's one of the reasons the Secretary-General was very keen to make that donation of masks to the city of New York. 

We are working, I would say, probably 95, 98 per cent telecommuting.  I think afterwards, we'll assess, obviously, how this will have impacted the work, how it will change the work moving forward, and I think that's true for the UN and every other business, including probably broadcasting.

Yes, the Secretary-General is… Dulcie asks has the Secretary-General spoken to US Ambassador Kelly Craft?

Yes, he's in regular contact with her as he is with a number of Permanent Representatives.

All right.  Lots of questions.  No more that I see.  As I've told you last week, we're trying to figure out other ways to speak to you more directly.  Zoom is, unfortunately, out of the picture for now for security reasons.

And we shall see you mañana.  Take care and be safe.

For information media. Not an official record.