23 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.

All right.  Good afternoon to all of you.  And just the usual reminder about muting your microphones and also making sure that you are pushing out video, as well as audio for the briefing, so I can hear you and see you when I call on you. 

**Human Rights Report

Today, as he launched a new report highlighting the centrality of human rights to the COVID-19 response and recovery, the Secretary-General said the pandemic is far more than a public health emergency.  It is a human, economic and social crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis. 

The virus has exposed deep weaknesses in the delivery of public services, the Secretary-General said, and we must make sure that they are properly addressed in the response. 

The 22-page policy brief highlights areas of concerns and lays out a series of recommendations to, among other things, ensure the availability and quality of health care for everyone and also to promote people-centred economic responses that adequately support those most affected by the loss of their livelihoods. 

In his message, the Secretary-General added that, looking ahead, we need to build back better.

He also called on Governments to be transparent and responsive and accountable.  Civic space and press freedom are critical, he added, and civil society organizations as well as the private sector have essential roles to play. 

By respecting human rights in this time of crisis, we will build more effective and inclusive solutions for the emergency of today and the recovery of tomorrow, the Secretary-General concluded. 

The report and the video message have been shared with you. 

**World Immunization Week

Ahead of World Immunization Week, which begins tomorrow, the World Health Organization (WHO) today warned that shutting down immunization services during the pandemic could lead to a resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and polio.  WHO pointed to last year’s deadly measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, during which 6,000 people died as it was facing the largest Ebola outbreak at the same time. 

**ECOSOC Forum

And this morning, the Secretary-General took part in the virtual meeting of the 2020 ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council) forum on “Financing Sustainable Development in the Context of COVID-19.”

In his remarks, he said that the unprecedented scale of the current crisis demands an unprecedented response.  He reiterated his three-point call to action, which entails taking decisive action through a global coordinated response, adopting measures to tackle the devastating socioeconomic consequences and ensuring that the global recovery leads to a more sustainable future. 

He emphasized the need for a global stimulus package that is a double-digit percentage of global GDP (gross domestic product).  He added that developing countries need massive and urgent support and that now is the time to stand by our commitment and leave no one behind. 

The Secretary-General also advocated for a debt moratorium and said the G20 (Group of 20) initiative to suspend debt service payments for the poorest countries is a critical first step. 

His remarks have been shared with you and they are also online. 


On a related note, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) today released a report that calls for a global debt deal for the developing world.  It underlines the vital necessity of providing substantive debt relief to developing countries, to free up sorely needed resources to respond to the pandemic. 

The UN trade and development body noted that the financial turmoil from the crisis has triggered record portfolio capital outflows from emerging economies.  It also caused sharp currency devaluations in developing countries, making servicing their debts that much more onerous.

According to the report, in 2020 and 2021, developing countries’ repayments on their public external debt alone will soar between $2.6 trillion and $3.4 trillion. 

UNCTAD said that calls for international solidarity have so far delivered little tangible support.  On 30 March, UNCTAD called for a $2.5 trillion coronavirus crisis package for developing countries. 

**Ramadan Video Message

In a video message we released last night, the Secretary-General extended his warmest wishes as millions of Muslims around the world begin observing the holy month of Ramadan.

He said this  will be a very different  Ramadan, as many community activities  will  naturally  be affected by measures to combat the  COVID-19  pandemic. 

The Secretary-General reiterated his appeal for an immediate global ceasefire to focus on our common enemy — the virus. He also recalled the words of the Holy Quran:  “And if they incline to peace, then incline to it.”

Meanwhile, Deborah Lyons, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, said today that the period ahead is a special time of prayer and reflection, as well as a time to show compassion for the most vulnerable members of society.  She hopes that Ramadan will provide an opportunity for all communities in Afghanistan to strengthen their bonds with each other in solidarity. 

**Security Council

And back at the Security Council, Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, briefed members remotely on the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

He said that the past month has seen inspiring examples of cooperation across conflict lines in the common battle against the virus.  But it has also witnessed continued confrontation and fighting, as the human toll of war continues to rise.

He warned that the dangerous prospect of annexation by Israel of parts of the occupied West Bank is a growing threat.  If such a move were implemented, he said, it would constitute a serious violation of international law, would deal a devastating blow to the two-State solution, and would close the door to a renewal of negotiations, as well as threaten efforts to advance regional peace. 

At the same time, Mr. Mladenov said, he is encouraged that the COVID-19 crisis has also created some opportunities for cooperation.  He hopes that these opportunities will not be undermined or destroyed if the political context between Israel and the Palestinian Authority deteriorates. 

With support from the United Nations, he added, both sides are coordinating their efforts on tackling the common threat posed by the pandemic.  Much more can — and must — be done, he told Council members.  And his remarks have been shared with you.


Turning to Yemen, in a statement issued today, the Humanitarian Coordinator for that country, Lise Grande, said that agencies are rushing to help authorities suppress the spread of COVID-19 and to prepare and equip facilities.  The World Health Organization (WHO) is funding 333 rapid response teams, present in every district across Yemen, responsible for detecting, assessing, alerting and responding to suspected virus cases.  People can reach out to these teams through multiple channels, including newly established hotlines. 

WHO is also equipping and helping to upgrade specialized isolation units in the 37 hospitals across the country that authorities have designated for the pandemic.  Thirty-two hospitals have received equipment and seven specialized isolation units are now fully operational.  The remaining thirty will be fully operational within the next two weeks, with funding from the World Health Organization. 

WHO has also moved quickly to procure, transport and distribute 520 intensive care unit (ICU) beds and 208 ventilators.  WHO has purchased 1,000 more ICU beds and 400 ventilators and will be transporting and distributing these as soon as the conditions permit.


Today’s Humanitarian Task Force meeting on Syria was convened virtually in Geneva.  Senior Humanitarian Adviser Najat Rochdi emphasized the need for immediate, safe and unhindered access for humanitarian workers to allow for the movement of humanitarian supplies.  That includes urgent needs related to COVID-19. 

Humanitarian needs in Syria remain extensive, with more than 11 million people requiring some form of humanitarian assistance.  That includes 4.7 million people living in areas of high severity of needs.  The response needed for COVID-19 has added to these demands. 

The Syrian Government and de facto authorities in areas outside Government control continue to prepare for and respond to the threat of the COVID-19 virus.  Severe challenges remain, however, including the living conditions of internally displaced persons, shortages of staff and medical equipment, and in areas that have seen heavy conflict, there is also a lack of adequate  health-care facilities. 

Rising food prices in Syria, where more than 11 million women, children and men are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, is also an increasing concern.  Prices have more than doubled in the last year, rising by 107 per cent across the country. 


In Libya, our humanitarian colleagues warn that a cessation of hostilities is urgently required in the country.  Ongoing insecurity and fighting around Tripoli are continuing to deepen civilian suffering. 

And amidst the conflict, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Libya has increased to 60, and that includes one death. 

According to a recent assessment, half of assessed cities reported food shortages and 86 per cent reported food price hikes.  On average, the prices of food items have increased by 27 per cent, while those of hygiene items have gone up by 12 per cent. 

In response, we, along with our humanitarian partners, are supporting authorities and working on the frontlines to provide aid to internally displaced people, returnees, refugees and asylum seekers. 


And I wanted to flag a few examples of the UN’s work led by country teams around the world. 

The Resident Coordinator in Uganda, Rosa Malango, today launched a $316 million emergency appeal to respond to the pandemic.  This appeal targets nearly 13 million people and focuses on saving lives and livelihoods.  The new plan covers health, food security, social protection, and refugees, among other areas. 

In addition to this virus, Uganda is also experiencing outbreaks of Yellow Fever, measles and Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever. 

The Resident Coordinator has warned of the potentially devastating effects of the pandemic on extremely vulnerable people, including those in the informal sector, households headed by children, refugees and people living with HIV.  Ms. Malango stressed the need to ensure that Uganda achieves the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure zero hunger and access to basic services, including health, sanitation, and education.  There are currently 56 confirmed COVID-19 cases currently in Uganda. 

**South Africa

In South Africa, there are nearly 3,500 confirmed cases of the virus, and our team there is supporting the Government’s efforts to address immediate health needs as well as the pandemic’s economic and social impacts. 

The Resident Coordinator, Nardos Bekele-Thomas, is regularly consulting with the Government, our development partners, civil society and others to ensure the response is coherent and responsive. 

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) unit in South Africa has donated personal protective equipment to shelters for women seeking refuge from abusive partners, while UN-Women is helping women farmers with safety measures and travel permits so they can continue selling food in markets. 

With South Africa having a high HIV infection rate, UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme against HIV/AIDS) is distributing medicine to people living with HIV/AIDS or other diseases such as TB (tuberculosis), which make them vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. 

**Central African Republic

The UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) tells us they’ve deployed a Quick Reaction Force yesterday to protect civilians in Pendé (in the Ouham-Pendé prefecture).  This follows an incident involving cattle theft; people there feared retaliation by members of an armed group known as the 3R. 

Peacekeepers continue to patrol in the area, and the situation is now calm. 

The Mission also launched an operation in another area of the country — the Kouki-Batangafo-Bouca axis (Ouham prefecture) — to protect civilians there and prevent violence against civilians. 

Meanwhile, as part of its efforts to support national authorities and communities in the fight against COVID-19, the Mission is using some of its community violence reduction programmes to support the production of face masks and soap bars in Bria, as well as in Kaga Bandoro.  The supplies are then distributed by local authorities.  Two groups of 30 beneficiaries of the violence reduction programmes, including 16 women, have been involved in these activities.  They are receiving support from the Mission’s disarmament, demobilization and reintegration section. 


And our friends at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said today that migration on the world’s busiest maritime route from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Gulf has dropped dramatically since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, stigmatization and ill-treatment of migrants are increasing. 

IOM noted that between January and March 2019, approximately 37,000 migrants crossed the Gulf of Aden to reach Yemen.  In the first quarter of this year, fewer than 28,000 made the same journey. 


And our colleagues at the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) today called for greater coordination and responsibility-sharing by countries to address the movement at sea of refugees and asylum-seekers in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. 

The UN refugee agency is increasingly concerned by reports of vessels not being allowed to disembark and the grave risk this poses to people onboard these ships. 

And in the midst of the pandemic, UNHCR says that all States must manage their borders as they see fit, but such measures should not close avenues to asylum or force people to return to dangerous situations. 


Staying in the same region, the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, said today that new data from Myanmar shows a deeply concerning increase in child casualties since the beginning of the year.  Of particular concern is the number of children killed or maimed as a result of airstrikes, landmines, explosive remnants of war and crossfire in Rakhine and Chin states.  She calls on all parties to the conflict to urgently implement all necessary measures to protect children from hostilities.  More information online. 

**Civil Aviation

The latest projections from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) showed yesterday that by September, the world could have 1.2 billion fewer international air travellers, compared to regular “business-as-usual”. 

Europe and the Asia-Pacific region will be hardest hit by the capacity and revenue impacts, followed by North America.  Similarly, the most substantial reduction in passenger numbers is expected to be in Europe, especially during the peak summer travel season, followed by Asia-Pacific.  You can find more information on ICAO’s website. 


Our colleagues at the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), based in Beirut, warned today that the Arab region is set to witness its greatest decline in foreign direct investment (FDI) on record due to the pandemic. 

The region is likely to lose 45 per cent of foreign investment inflows this year.  The Commission stressed the need for Governments in the region to implement measures that support businesses to reduce layoffs and keep essential operations running.  You can find more information online. 

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

And we got a brief an update on flooding in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

As we have been mentioning, heavy rains — which are expected to continue over the next few days — have already impacted the country’s eastern provinces, including South Kivu, Maniema, Haut Lomami, Haute Katanga and Tanganyika. 

In the city of Uvira, in South Kivu, at least 78,000 people have been affected and an estimated 40 people have now died.  Some 15,000 homes have been destroyed or flooded.  And as we mentioned earlier, schools and health centres have also been affected. 

**Girls in ICT

And last, but definitely not least — today is Girls in ICT (Information and Communication Technology) Day. 

In his message, the Secretary-General said that the unprecedented pandemic had demonstrated the vital importance of information and communications technology to society.  It will be key to understand the virus and help curb its spread, and he stressed the need to include women in this field.

Mr. Guterres encouraged young women to engage in careers that will help them save our planet and its people.  “The world cannot afford to lose your talent,” he said. 

And to mark the Day, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)is holding a series of online dialogues to inspire girls and young women to take up careers in the tech field. 

**Questions and Answers

All right, that is it for my work.  It's now up to you to at least work and come up with some interesting and fascinating questions that I will answer, hopefully.  Let's go to our friendly moderator.  Maria, why don't you go ahead?  Maria?  Yes.  I can hear you.

Question:  Hi.  So, the permanent five members of the Security Council had plans to hold a videoconference this week, which got postponed.  I want to know if the SG was involved in the preparation of such a conference, if it's still going to take place?  And what expectations that SG have from the summit in such a challenging time?

And the second question on the Security Council resolution suggested by France and Tunisia.  The draft document doesn't include at all the mentioning of the World Health Organization.  So would SG support such a document, if it will be adopted by Security Council? Thanks.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Let me try to take your questions in reverse order. 

We're not going to comment on a draft that is exactly that, a draft.  The Security Council…  we very much hope that the Council will speak with one voice. 

What the draft, what the resolution will include, that will be a decision for the Security Council members themselves to make.  The Secretary-General is not involved in that.  Obviously, the Secretary-General's position and support for the World Health Organisation has been often stated and is very clear.

On your first question, which I had a bit of trouble hearing, but what I recall, it had to do with the reported video meeting between the five Permanent Members of the Security Council — we're aware of the fact that this meeting may take place.  We are not involved, as far as I know, in this meeting, but obviously, part of the need for the Security Council to speak with one voice is also…  boils down, very often, given the Charter, for the five permanent members to also speak with one voice.  So let's see what comes out of that event.

Evelyn.  Evelyn?

Correspondent:  Yes.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, I can hear you.

Correspondent:  Okay.  How are you, Steph?

Spokesman:  Very well.

Question:  On the UN 75, is there any update on a decision?  But also, you said that the membership should decide.  How is that done?  Through the GA, or…?

Spokesman:  Are you talking about the UN 75 Initiative or the high-level week in September?

Correspondent:  The September meeting.

Spokesman:  The September meeting is a General Assembly meeting.  Whatever modifications or changes or delay…  whatever the Member States will decide, that will be up to the Member States, and I'm sure those discussions are being had with the President of the General Assembly (PGA), and so that's a question for the PGA.

We will, of course, support the Member States, as is our role as the Secretariat.

Question:  But you won’t…  [inaudible]

Spokesman:  Sorry?

Question:  You won't initiate what they should do, the Secretariat, just support it?

Spokesman:  We're there…  Obviously, we will give them advice as they ask, and I have no doubt that they will be…  consultations would have to take place with the Secretariat, but what I'm saying is that the decision of whatever happens to the high-level week is a decision that will have to be taken by the Member States.  I have no doubt that consultations will be had.  Of course, we are there to give them advice on health issues, on security, on whatever, on the technical issues, but the ultimate decision will be from the Member States.


Question:  I sent you an e-mail yesterday, Stéphane, just to mention the passing of our colleague Ransford Cline-Thomas, who was a long-time UN staff, and the chief of radio, and he fell from corona and passed away on the 21st.  I want to say condolences for our former colleague.  I think you know him and probably worked with hhim.

Spokesman:  Thank you.  We…  Mr Cline-Thomas did…  we were made aware that he passed away from COVID.  He was a long-time staff member, instrumental in the UN radio and modernizing UN Radio, and I know a lot of his colleagues mourn his loss, and we also send our best wishes to his wife, and the rest of his family.


Question:  Thank you, Steph. 

My question is regarding Libya.  Mr. [Ghassan] Salamé left his office now six weeks ago, and so far, there doesn't seem to be a solution for his succession.  Do you have a rough timeline on that?

Spokesman:  I try not to give timelines on issues, especially on senior personnel issues.  Discussions are still ongoing.  I think you have all seen what has been reported in the press, as well in various places.

Obviously, we will announce officially once we have someone, but, you know, it needs to be underscored that we have a great Acting Special Representative (SRSG), Stephanie Williams, who is leading the Mission, so there is no vacuum at the head of the Mission while the search process for a permanent SRSG continues. 

All right.  Any more questions?  Yes, Gloria.

Question:  I feel that there could be a new industry worldwide in Africa and the developing countries, producing their own ventilators and their own masks, because it's becoming an industry.  This is not going to end with the next couple of months.  This is going to be where people will be stocking ventilators and masks.

What are the countries in the world, in Africa where they have all the women with sewing machines, could be producing or producing the ventilators?  Is it so hard to manufacture them as an industry, a minor industry?

Spokesman:  Short answer is:  I don't know; I'm not a ventilator manufacturing expert.  But obviously, we have seen around the world people making masks on a kind of artisanal basis and sharing them with their communities, whether in the United States, in Europe, in Africa, in Asia, and I think it's a wonderful act of solidarity by communities towards health-care workers.

Abdelhamid, you have another question?

Question:  Yeah, thank you, Stéphane. 

Can you confirm that the Secretary-General followed, today, a meeting on the Middle East and the question of Palestine and the Security Council?

Spokesman:  No.

Correspondent:  The meeting…

Spokesman:  He's…  I mean, he knows what Mr. Mladenov said.  You know, the Secretary-General does not attend these meetings.  He is briefed…  he is represented by Mr. Mladenov.  Whether he watched it on the webcast in his office or in residence, I don't know, but he is…  Not only does he know what Mr. Mladenov was planning to say, because that does not come as a surprise to him, but, as always, he will get a recap of the meeting from his political staff.

Correspondent:  I followed the meeting, Mr. Stéphane.  Mr. Mladenov mentioned this disagreement between the two parties in Israel and about annexing more land on 1 July.  However, he just mentioned the old rhetoric of that — violation of international law and a unilateral decision which will jeopardize peace process and a two-State solution.

But there was no clear-cut position that this should be stopped and condemned.  The word, the “rejection” of this plan, has not been expressed explicitly.

Spokesman:  I…  well, you know, you and I will have to live with our differences on this.  Even though the rhetoric, as you say, you consider it old, I think Mr. Mladenov could not have been more direct and clear as to the risks of what would happen if the annexation went through. 

Okay.  On that note, I wish you all…  I was hoping to wish you a good weekend, but I will look forward to seeing you tomorrow.  Thank you all, bye.

For information media. Not an official record.