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13 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 Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

Good morning, everyone, and I hope you enjoyed your weekend.

**Secretary-General’s Appeal

During the weekend, as Christians celebrated Easter and Jews marked Passover, and with Ramadan about to begin soon, the Secretary-General made a special appeal to religious leaders of all faiths to join forces to work for peace around the world and focus on our common battle to defeat COVID-19.  He said that this is a time like no other, as we are all seeking to navigate a strange, surreal world.  A world of silent streets.  Shuttered storefronts.  Empty places of worship.  And a world of worry.  He said:  “Let us all take inspiration from the essence of these holy occasions as moments for reflection, remembrance and renewal.”  As we reflect, he added, let us spare a special thought for heroic health workers on the frontlines battling this awful virus – and for all those working to keep our cities and towns going.  And he also called on all to remember the most vulnerable of the vulnerable around the world – those in war zones and refugee camps and slums and all those places least equipped to fight the virus.  The full statement is online.

**Middle East

The Secretary-General’s envoys for the Middle East, in a joint statement also issued over the weekend, recalled his appeal on 23 March for an immediate global ceasefire, and added that too many in the Middle East have endured conflict and deprivation for far too long.  The envoys jointly called on all parties in the region to engage, in good faith and without preconditions, on negotiating immediate halts to ongoing hostilities, sustaining existing ceasefires, putting in place more durable and comprehensive ceasefires, and achieving longer-term resolutions to the persistent conflicts across the region.  They also appealed to all to exercise maximum restraint, reach out across conflict lines and facilitate humanitarian access and called for special attention to the plight of the detained, the abducted and the missing.

The envoys said that their teams will continue to focus on preventive diplomacy, on assisting all efforts to respond to the health and socioeconomic consequences of the crisis, support broad cooperation in the interest of peace and the well-being of all, work relentlessly to facilitate humanitarian access to the most vulnerable, and engage resolutely for these objectives.  In a separate statement, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov said that he was concerned about the socioeconomic consequences of the COVID-19 health crisis on the Palestinian people, particularly vulnerable communities in Gaza.  If current trends continue, the damage to the Palestinian economy will be substantial.  In that context, he welcomed Prime Minister [Mohammed] Shtayyeh’s announcement of an emergency budget aimed at keeping public spending to a minimum.

**COVID-19 — Children

United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Henrietta Fore today said that hundreds of thousands of children currently detained in countries around the world are at grave risk of contracting COVID-19.  Many children are being held in confined and overcrowded spaces with inadequate access to nutrition, health‑care and hygiene services, she said, warning that an outbreak in one of these facilities could happen at any moment.  Ms. Fore also pointed out that detained children are also more vulnerable to neglect, abuse and gender-based violence, and called on Governments and other detaining authorities to urgently release all children who can safely return to their families or an appropriate alternative.  UNICEF also calls for an immediate moratorium on new admissions of children to detention facilities.

**COVID-19 — Syria

Our humanitarian colleagues are concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on people across Syria, including the millions of women, children and men in urgent need of life-saving assistance in the north-west, many of them recently displaced and particularly vulnerable.  To date, the Syrian Government has confirmed a total of 25 cases, including 5 people who have recovered and two fatalities.  The World Health Organization (WHO) is leading UN support in preparing for and mitigating the risk of the spread of COVID-19 the pandemic across Syria.  The UN is stepping up its efforts to mitigate the virus’s spread with a focus on enhancing the capacity to detect, diagnose and prevent the spread of COVID-19 to the extent possible; ensuring adequate surveillance of entry points; and providing protective equipment and training to health workers.

**COVID-19 — Kazakhstan

We have an update from our colleagues in Kazakhstan, where there are around 900 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the UN team is working closely with authorities to address the immediate health needs.  The World Health Organization has repurposed and hired additional staff to support national efforts, and has also trained health‑care professionals on infection, prevention and control.  The UN team has launched awareness raising campaigns to reduce the spread of COVID‑19 and is also working with the private sector to boost preparedness and response.

**COVID-19 — Comoros

And in Comoros, although the country has no registered COVID-19 cases, the UN is working closely with the Government on its National Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan, contributing nearly $2.5 million to a national contingency initiative and providing surge personnel.  The President of Comoros is working directly with the UN Resident Coordinator and the heads of UN agencies, funds and programmes to strengthen collaboration and boost preparedness.  The UN team has helped set up a monitoring and control system at the international airport, ordering personal protective equipment for hospitals and ambulance staff, and providing additional testing supplies and medical equipment to local hospitals and laboratories.  The UN has also trained health‑care and laboratory workers on emergency response procedures.  The UN is working with municipalities to boost sanitation measures, including in street markets.

**Financial Contributions

And on financial contributions, we have great news today, as we acknowledge two more Member States that have paid their regular budget dues in full — Jamaica and Japan.  That brings to 80 the total number of countries that have paid in full.  And that is it for me right now.  I’m ready to take questions as I get them.  Oh, and before that happens, I have one more on Libya.

**Libya

Our colleagues in Libya report that hostilities in the western region of the country have continued to cause civilian casualties and triggered new displacement.  Yesterday, heavy shelling was reported in parts of Tripoli.  Shelling has also hit residential areas in Tajoura and struck an ambulance near Misrata, killing a paramedic.  This was the eighth attack on health facilities this year.  During the last weeks, about 3,700 people have fled their homes in Abusliem District in Tripoli.  More than 2 million people, including 600,000 children, who live in Tripoli and surrounding towns and cities, have suffered from water cuts for more than a week.  The water cuts have coincided with a serious power outage in the western region, also imposed due to another individual dispute.  The Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya, Yacoub el Hillo, stressed that water should never be used as a pressure card nor as a weapon of war, especially now when Libya is fighting the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.  And that’s it for my part.  I’m ready for your questions.  I believe Evelyn has a question first.  Evelyn?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  Can you hear me?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes, I can hear you.  Nice to see you.

Question:  Okay.  Nice to see you.  Hope you are well, and your family is.  Can you update us on the number of infections among UN staff and where they are?  And secondly, is there anyone heading the Libya organization since the United States turned down the Algerian candidate?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, first, I'll just start with your second question first, just to let you know that, yes, we have an acting Head of Mission, and that is our Deputy Head and current acting Head and acting Special Representative, Stephanie Turco Williams, and so she is in charge of our response until we get a full‑time person named.  Of course, we'll make that announcement once we get it.  Let me get, I’m trying to get a hold of the numbers.

Question:  The number of UN…?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes.  I'm going to try and get a hold of that.  I will have to return to you a little bit later on this.  I'll try to get you the latest numbers in a little bit.  Before that, let's take the next question, which, I believe, is from Abdelhamid.  Abdelhamid, you're on. 

Correspondent:  Abdelhamid, you need to un‑mute yourself, please.

Question:  Sorry.  I'll repeat.  Yes, Farhan.  The PA [Palestinian Authority] issued a statement saying that they had a fear that the Israelis… the Israeli… [Benjamin] Netanyahu might take advantage of the corona pandemic and annex the Jordan Valley are you aware of that?  Did Mladenov mention anything like that? And if that happens, do you have… does the SG have any reaction or any step that he can take?  That's one question.  And second is about Libya.  I mean, who's responsible for these casualties?  Who's responsible for attacking civilians in Tripoli?  Can you name him?  Can you name the party who is responsible?  Thank you.

Deputy Spokesman:  For the latest attacks, we would need to obtain further information.  We've made clear our concerns about the attacks by the Libyan National Army in recent weeks, and we've said so.  If we get further information on the latest attacks, we'll provide that as they come in.  Regarding the situation in the Jordan Valley, we've repeatedly spoken out — the Secretary‑General, Nickolay Mladenov and others — against… about the need to avoid any unilateral steps and any steps that could endanger the peace process, and we continue to do so.  At this stage, of course, what we are encouraging is for the Israelis and the Palestinians to work together in the fight against COVID‑19, and Mr. Mladenov has been encouraged by the cooperation that the two parties have been showing as they try to deal with the pandemic.  Okay.  So, next up is Pamela Falk.  Pam, are you there?

Question:  Yes.  I'm sorry.  I took a long time to un‑mute.  My question is about the wet markets in China, the WHO and Dr. [David] Nabarro said this morning that the… that he can't tell a country what to do, but he encourages the China… Chinese Government to close the wet markets.  Does the Secretary‑General have a view?  And I want to repeat Alan's question that was on the chat, which is, was the contribution that the DPKO [Department of Peacekeeping Operations] just said that the US made just for DPKO, or has the US fulfilled its assessment for the regular budget?  Thank you.

Deputy Spokesman:  No, on the question about peacekeeping, the contributions, we did receive many substantial contributions from the United States last week, but they were to peacekeeping operations.  So, this helps with their arrears in peacekeeping, but does not have to do with their regular budget dues.  We're very appreciative, of course, of the significant amount, which will help our peacekeeping operations continue.

Question:  Can you say how much it was?

Deputy Spokesman:  I don't have the exact figures in front of me, but I believe last week there was contributions of up to something like $700 million for different operations, but I think our peacekeeping colleagues would have more of the precise numbers about which operations were funded on this.  What was your first question again?

Correspondent:  On the wet markets.

Deputy Spokesman:  Yeah.  On that, of course, we want all Member States to observe the recommendations and the policy guidelines that are being set by the World Health Organization on this.  I believe that the World Health Organization today made clear that they will have some new and revised guidelines coming out tomorrow.  And so, we want those to be followed, and of course, we ourselves are making sure that we are apprised of the World Health Organization's recommendations and that we ourselves, as a UN system, follow them.  Okay.  So, thank you, Pam.  And next one up is James Bays.  James?

Question:  Hey, Farhan.  I hope you can hear me?  Excellent.  Your latest information on the Libya statement doesn't seem to keep track with quite important developments that have happened in recent hours.  So, I want to ask you about those specifically, which is the internationally recognized Government based in Tripoli has now retaken three cities.  They are Sorman, Al‑Ajaylat and Sabratha.  Now, those are cities that are on the… between the Tunisian border and Tripoli, so strategically very important.  What is your reaction to that, and also to the news that, since then, there's been retaliation by General [Khalifa] Haftar, who, again, has been shelling Tripoli?  That is confirmed.  The source is Al Jazeera's team in Tripoli.  They are certainly hearing the shelling, as I'm sure are your own UN staff.

Deputy Spokesman:  Of course, we are concerned about all of the continued fighting from whichever side, including, of course, the latest shelling, but we, as you know, have been asking for the parties to cease fighting.  It's very clear that right now there are the first signs of COVID‑19 infections in Libya and we need to make sure that they can set aside their… all military offensives and work together in terms of being able to allow for us to deal with the pandemic before that comes out of control.  And, so, that is where our priority lies.  Before we get to any further question, I just wanted to let you know that, in terms of the cases at the UN of COVID‑19 that Evelyn asked about, that, as of Sunday evening, there were 189 confirmed cases among the UN worldwide, and that included 3 deaths in the UN system that have happened since the start of the pandemic.  So, again, it's 189, just around the world.  Okay.  And with that, the next one up is Edie Lederer.  Edie?

Question:  Thank you very much, Farhan, and hi to everybody whose picture I see.  I look forward to us all being together sometime in the coming months.  Two questions.  First, can you give us an update on where things are in Yemen and what Martin Griffiths is doing to try and pursue this two‑week ceasefire and what specifically he's doing?  And second, Steph [Dujarric] mentioned at the end of last week that the Secretary‑General might be doing something… some kind of a briefing with us this week.  Do you have any details on that?

Deputy Spokesman:  Okay.  Well, first of all, regarding Martin Griffiths, we did share some information about this last Friday, to let you know that the Special Envoy, Mr. Griffiths, did share on Friday with the Government of Yemen and the Ansar Allah the UN revised proposals for agreements on nationwide ceasefire, on economic and humanitarian measures, and the urgent resumption of the peace process.  And he urged the parties to accept these proposed agreements without delay and begin working together through a formal political process to comprehensively end the war.  The international community stands ready to provide support and assurances to the process.  And Mr. Griffiths stressed that the announcement of the first confirmed case of COVID‑19 in Yemen makes it even more imperative to stop the fighting immediately.  Regarding the Secretary‑General, there are potentially a few times this week when he might come to the press.  We're trying to lock down some of these events, but I don't have the details to share with you just yet.  I do think that the Secretary‑General will be appearing before the press this week and potentially more than once, but we'll have to get those ironed out.

Question:  Farhan, a follow‑up on Yemen.  We all wrote about that on Friday, but today is Monday.  Has there been any reaction?

Deputy Spokesman:  How shall I put this without sounding overused? We are, as ever, cautiously optimistic.  I think Mr. Griffiths has had some good indications as a result of the discussions he's had with the parties.  If we have something more on this, we'll let you know as soon as that happens, but right now, we're in a wait‑and‑see mode to see how well Mr. Griffiths' discussions go.  But, right now, there are some grounds for optimism, but we'll have to see where we can go with that.  And with that, Oscar.  Oscar Bolanos.  Oscar, are you there?  Okay.  I see… okay.  I have your question in writing.  So, Oscar Bolanos asked about the social and economic impact COVID‑19 is creating around the world.  On this regard, what is the Secretary‑General's concern and what is his message against corruption when trillions of dollars are moving to assist the most vulnerable people around the world and if there is any information by the UNODC [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] in this regard now when civilians are in need? What system is being implemented to prevent and protect civilians around the world, victims of the pandemic, to ensure those funds end in the right hands?   At this stage, of course, it's the responsibility of Governments to perform the necessary oversight of how funds are being spent.  We certainly implore that all of the funds go exactly to people who are most in need and to helping to resolve the health crisis before it worsens, and we will, of course, have to monitor whether this actually happens or not.  Down the line, of course, if money has been spent, there will need to be accountability, but right now, the focus is on ensuring that Governments are mobilizing and get the money to the health‑care workers, the facilities and all those who need it.  So, that is it for your question.  And with that, Ibtisam, Ibtisam Azem, please.

Question:  Hi, Farhan.  Can you hear me?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yeah.  Hi.

Question:  Hi, Farhan.  Good to see you and good to see everyone.  So, my question has to do also with Yemen, two parts.  The first one, do you have more details on the humanitarian efforts?  Are you able to reach people where you want to reach them?  And the second part has to do with the Houthis.  According to Ansar Allah.  According to…  some news reports are claiming that the Saudi‑led Coalition continue to carry out attacks despite the ceasefire.  Can you confirm that?  Thank you.

Deputy Spokesman:  I don't have a confirmation of that, although we're aware of the reports.  As you know, from the statements that both the Secretary‑General and Martin Griffiths put out last week, we want to make sure that everyone abides by the ceasefire and helps allow for progress and a resumption of the political process.  On our efforts to deal with COVID‑19, the World Health Organization, even before the first cases were announced in Yemen, was supporting the health authorities in preparing for the pandemic, by providing medical supplies, testing kits and training and information campaigns.  As of last week, 37 health facilities were identified to serve as COVID‑19 isolation units in all of the governorates of Yemen, and 80 health workers were trained on clinical management, infection prevention and control and triage and surveillance.  And WHO has provided 500 testing kits so far, and 75 ventilators have been distributed to hospitals in Yemen.

Question:  I have a follow‑up if I… so… thank you.  So, why is it that you cannot… you have people all over Yemen or in most areas.  Why can't you confirm whether there were attacks carried out or not in Yemen?  That's not clear to me.

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, like I said, we are aware of the reports.  Right now, what we're working to do, Mr. Griffiths is working with the parties and conveying to them not just the need to abide by the ceasefire but is trying to push the various proposals that he has adopt… he had mentioned last Friday with them, and we're going to see where we go with that.  In any peace process, there are always local spoilers on the ground, but we hope that this is not representative of the wider forces, because, as you know, the Saudis, the Yemeni Government and Ansar Allah had all agreed in recent weeks to a temporary ceasefire.  And with that, Dulcie is next.  Dulcie Leimbach, please.  Dulcie?  Okay.  Dulcie has texted the question:  When is the next VTC [video teleconference] meeting with the Secretary‑General, the President of the General Assembly and the head of ECOSOC [Economic and Social Council]?  There's nothing scheduled, so far.  Whenever there is another meeting of those three officials to announce, we'll let you know.  And with that, we go on to Carrie Nooten.  Carrie, are you on?

Question:  Yes.  Hi, Farhan.  Good to see you.  You've already replied part of my question when I asked for what was about the American contribution, if it was for the peacekeeping operation budget or the regular budget.  So, thank you for that.  I just want to know a little bit more.  Has the US contributed to anything to the regular budget yet?  And has China contributed for anything to the regular budget yet?

Deputy Spokesman:  I believe we got… the last big contribution we got from the United States to the regular budget was towards the end of last year so, in other words, around December 2019.  Any new contributions would first go to defraying their arrears for the previous year before we get to this year's budget dues, but like I said, the contributions in recent days were on peacekeeping.  I'm not aware of the latest contributions from China, whether they've made partial contributions so far this year, but I can check.  Okay.  Gloria Starr, please.  Gloria Starr?

Correspondent:  Farhan, she has a written question.

Deputy Spokesman:  Okay.  All right.  Oh, yes.  During Ramadan, will the imams make special concessions to be sure people are drinking enough to avoid the virus or if they have to take care of it themselves?  Well, Ramadan has not started yet.  Of course, the basic point is to make sure that everyone takes care of their health, and we hope that all officials, whether religious officials or the different Governments, will make sure that everyone puts their own health needs first and foremost and makes the allowances that are needed to ensure that people's health is taken care of.  Thank you for that question.  And with that, I turn to Alan Bulkaty of RIA Novosti.

Question:  Hi, Farhan.  Can you hear me?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes.

Question:  I have a question regarding the prospects of the GA high‑level week.  Are there any discussions being held about the possible postponement or shortening the format of the GA high‑level week?  Thank you.

Deputy Spokesman:  I think this is a discussion that is happening right now at the Member State level.  We'll have to see what the Member States want to achieve on this.  As you know, for all meetings of the central bodies — the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly — it's really decisions of the Member States that determine what course of action we will take.  We are providing the information that we have on the health aspects here in New York and so forth, and we'll see what happens.  There's nothing to announce at this stage.  And it's, I think, a little bit early in the day to announce what's going to happen, but we do expect these discussions will continue.  Thanks, Alan.

And then with that, the next one is Iftikhar.  I have a question from Iftikhar Ali, who says:  Human Rights Watch called for the repeal of India's Citizenship Amendment Act, which discriminates against Muslims.  Does the Secretary‑General have any comments on this call?  I would just refer you to the remarks that have been made by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and the concerns of her office, and we hope that her concerns are taken seriously. And that is all that I have on my list right now.

Oh, wait.  I have one more from Dulcie:  What was the reason for the US to suddenly pay its peacekeeping arrears?  Different Member States contribute money at different times depending upon their budgetary cycles.  I'd suggest that you ask the US about the timing of that.  You know, of course, we don't determine the timing of when Member States contribute.  And I think that's it for questions.  So, unless I hear anything more in the next minute, I think I will bid you a good afternoon.  Have a good day, everyone.  Bye.

For information media. Not an official record.