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28 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.  Take two.  Obviously, I was telling you to mute your microphones and I also decided to mute mine.  So, apologies for that.  That is entirely on me, and let’s start again.

**Secretary-General — Climate

This morning, the Secretary-General spoke at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, an online two-day meeting of ministers organized by Germany and chaired by the United Kingdom.  The meeting focuses on how to organize a green economic recovery after the acute phase of the pandemic has passed.  The Secretary-General said that, as we plan our recovery from the pandemic, we have a profound opportunity to steer our world on a more sustainable and inclusive path — a path that tackles climate change, protects the environment, reverses biodiversity loss and ensures the long-term health and security of humankind.  In his remarks, he stressed that the only answer to tackle the pandemic, as well as the climate crisis, is brave, visionary and collaborative leadership, adding that the highest cost is the cost of doing nothing.

The Secretary-General proposed six climate-related actions to shape the recovery.  These include:  delivering new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition; using public funds to invest in sustainable sectors and projects; and ensuring that taxpayers’ money is used to create inclusive growth and not to bail out outdated and polluting industries.  The Secretary-General also called on all countries, particularly the biggest emitters, to prepare enhanced national climate strategies to reach zero emissions by 2050.  I would also encourage you to check out the SG’s op-ed published online on The New York Times this morning on the same topic.  And the full remarks of the Secretary-General to the Petersberg meeting have been shared with you.

**Group of Five for the Sahel

Also this morning, during a meeting organized by the European Commission with the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) countries, the Deputy Secretary‑General, Amina Mohammed, said that, as we face this global human crisis, keeping the Sahel high on the international agenda is of the utmost importance.  While the virus has put a pause on the world, she added, it has certainly not put a pause on terrorism, poverty and climate change.  She welcomed the renewed commitment of the Heads of State of the G5 Sahel and their European partners to join forces to counter terrorism, curb organized crime and tackle the root causes of instability.  The political, social and economic impacts of the coronavirus have been exacerbating pressure on the G5 Sahel countries, already under extreme stress.

In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, 4 million people face extreme hunger, a figure that is expected to reach 5.5 million people by August.  In Mali, for example, COVID‑19 has already affected agriculture and led to a significant rise in prices, seriously affecting food security.  The Deputy Secretary-General said that COVID-19 threatens to swallow hard-won development gains.  In this context, she reiterated the importance of partnership and called on all partners to enhance coordination and exchange in information and mutual support.  Her full remarks are also online.

**New York City

And following an initiative by Jordan, 167 Member States and Permanent Observers have issued a statement of solidarity and appreciation to the City of New York in the midst of COVID-19.  New York City, the statement says, has been the home that has welcomed and nurtured collective action against global challenges.  It is in New York City that the Headquarters of the United Nations stands as our collective voice for peace, prosperity and solidarity.  We are fully confident that New York will overcome this crisis, the statement says.  New Yorkers will triumph over this challenge and will emerge stronger and more resilient.  The Member States and Permanent Observers saluted the dedication and courage of all New Yorkers.  We know that New Yorkers will win over this vicious enemy, they said.  The Secretary-General will be issuing this letter as an official document of the United Nations, and of course, is fully supportive not only of this initiative but our host city.

**COVID-19 — Women and Girls

And a new analysis issued today by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and partners pointed out that the economic and physical disruptions caused by COVID-19 could have vast consequences for the rights and health of women and girls.  The research shows that significant levels of lockdown-related disruption over six months could leave 47 million women in 114 low- and middle-income countries unable to use modern contraceptives.  This could lead to a projected 7 million additional unintended pregnancies.  Six months of lockdowns could also result in an additional 31 million cases of gender-based violence.  UNFPA added that the pandemic is expected to cause significant delays in programmes to end female genital mutilation and child marriage.  Due to these disruptions, 2 million more cases of female genital mutilation and 13 million more child marriages may occur over the next decade.

**COVID-19 — LGBTI People

And the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and MPact Global Action for Gay Men’s Health and Rights are extremely concerned that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people are being singled out, blamed, abused, incarcerated and stigmatized as vectors of disease during this pandemic.  Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, said that “all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, are entitled to the right to health, safety and security, without exception”.  She added that “respect and dignity are needed now more than ever before”.

**COVID-19 — Safety and Health at Work

And today is the World Day for Safety and Health at Work.  This year, not surprisingly, it focuses on addressing the outbreak of infectious diseases at work, in particular, during the current pandemic.  We note that Governments, employers, workers and their organizations face enormous challenges as they try to combat the pandemic and protect safety and health at work.  Beyond the immediate crisis, there are also concerns about resuming activity in a manner that sustains progress made in suppressing transmission.  For its part, the International Labour Organization (ILO) warns that, without adequate safeguards for returning workers, there could be a second wave of the virus.

**COVID-19 — Samoa

A few updates to share with you from the country level:  In Samoa, where there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the pandemic has already impacted the economy of the country, as well as others in the South Pacific.  The Resident Coordinator, Simona Marinescu, is leading the UN team’s response, which also covers three territories.  The UN team — including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UNFPA, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) — are all providing technical assistance to the health sector and procuring critical medical supplies and personal protective equipment.  On the socioeconomic front, together with the Government, the UN is working on a food bank for more than 4,000 households until the economy has stabilized.  The UN team is also allocating some existing funds from the European Union under the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative to address the impacts of COVID-19 on violence against women in their homes.

**COVID-19 — Democratic Republic of the Congo

And in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where — just like everywhere else, ensuring that children continue to learn despite school closures is a challenge.  Our colleagues in the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) report that Radio Okapi, the radio station operated by MONUSCO, is the first media outlet in the country to provide education through radio.  “Okapi Ecole” was launched this past Sunday, in partnership with the Ministry of Education and UNICEF.  It aims to provide 14 broadcast hours every week of schooling to the 22 million children currently at home because their schools are closed.  This radio programming will run for the next six months.  It focusses on primary education and stems from a call for proposals from the Ministry of Education to media in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

**Afghanistan

And the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) says that it documented a total of 533 civilians killed and 760 injured in Afghanistan during the first three months of this year.  According to a UN report released yesterday, the numbers include 150 children who were killed due to fighting in the country.  The report tracks a disturbing increase in violence during March, when it was hoped that the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban would commence peace negotiations.  It also highlights the urgent need for all parties to the conflict to do more to protect civilians from harm, especially in view of the looming threat posed to all Afghans by the virus.  Despite increasing levels of violence in March, the overall number of civilian casualties in the first quarter of 2020 represents a 29 per cent decrease in comparison to the first quarter of 2019 and the lowest figure for a first quarter since 2012.

**Myanmar

And from Myanmar, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that the continued conflict between the Myanmar Armed Forces and the Arakan Army in Rakhine State and in the south of Chin State have led to increased civilian casualties and forced people to flee their homes in recent weeks.  Last week alone, more than 30 civilians — including children — were reportedly killed or injured by shelling and small-arms fire.  You will remember that on 20 April, a WHO staff member was killed and a Government official injured in Rakhine while supporting the response to the virus.  Myanmar is now facing the very real threat of the disease.  The Humanitarian Coordinator, Ola Almgren, has highlighted how continued conflict is also a major impediment in the fight against the pandemic.  The UN is working closely to support national prevention and response efforts.

**Colombia

And turning to Colombia, the Secretary-General regrets the announcement made by the National Liberation Army (ELN), in Spanish, that it will not extend its unilateral ceasefire past the end of April, after several weeks in which it was having a positive effect.  An extension would have brought hope and a message of peace to conflict-affected communities and beyond, facilitating the pandemic response in line with the Secretary-General’s call.  We continue to urge armed groups in Colombia to cease all violence.  Communities urgently need relief assistance unimpeded by the risk of hostilities and violence.  And at this time, the country’s people need to be able to concentrate on their efforts on fighting the pandemic.

**Yemen

And I was asked about the situation in southern Yemen yesterday, and I have the following to say:  The Secretary-General is following with concern the developments on the ground in southern Yemen.  He urges all relevant stakeholders to exercise maximum restraint and refrain from any actions that would further escalate the situation.  He calls on all to engage in an inclusive dialogue to resolve their differences and address the legitimate concerns of all Yemenis, including those of southern groups.  He further calls on them to implement the Riyadh Agreement, as well as concentrate efforts to counter the spread of COVID-19 and to respond to the flooding that has impacted thousands of Yemenis.  The Secretary-General reaffirms the need to preserve the integrity of Yemeni institutions and emphasizes that the conflict in Yemen can only be resolved through a negotiated political settlement.

**Security Council — Middle East

I also want to clarify something that the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, said in his remarks to the Security Council members last week on 23 April, when he said that “34 Palestinian-owned structures in Area C were demolished during the reporting period” (that is, from 21 March to 22 April).  I want to specify that there were no structures demolished in East Jerusalem during the reporting period, and due to the COVID-19 crisis, Israeli authorities did not demolish any inhabited structures after 26 March.  The briefing makes clear that, while the temporary halt to  home  demolitions was welcome, the demolitions of uninhabited structures continued and the Special Coordinator called for these to stop.

**Security Council — Abyei

Back here, well, virtually back here, this morning, the Security Council held an open videoconference on the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA).  Briefing Council members, the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, said that, despite the improving relations between Sudan and South Sudan, it remains very unlikely that progress will be made in determining the final status of the Abyei area in the short to medium term.  He said that, at the local level, the security situation in the Abyei Area remains volatile, with tensions between the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya communities, an increase in criminality and the presence of armed elements in the mission’s area of responsibility.

Mr. Lacroix said that UN troops have been subject to attacks by armed elements, pointing to an incident on 24 April when UN forces were fired upon by an armed Misseriya herdsman in Nai Nai.  In a separate incident on the same day in the same area, three members of the Misseriya community attacked the temporary operating base at Alal; peacekeepers repelled that attack.  Regarding COVID-19, Mr. Lacroix said that the UN mission is working to encourage handwashing and social distancing, as well as to decongest detention centres and set up screening sites in Abyei.  He requested that the Council extend the UN mission’s mandate for a further six months.

**Regular Budget

And finally, I am delighted to announce that our friends from Andorra have paid their balance in full for the 2020 regular budget, which takes us up to 86 fully paid-up Member States.  And on this note, I will now turn to you to perform.  I need my glasses, and let's see what is coming in from Florencia [Soto Nino].  James Bays.  James, I can't hear you.  All right.  I'm going to go, in the meantime… Sylviane, did you have a question?  If you want to turn on your microphone.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, I can hear you.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  This is a question on Lebanon.  Lebanon's economy protests turned violent, with protesters blocking off roads despite the COVID‑19 lockdown across Lebanon for the second consecutive day to denounce the country's economy near collapse.  Any comment from the SG to the Lebanese leader and protester and on the situation in Lebanon, please?

Spokesman:  Sure.  I mean, as always, we urge protesters to exercise their right to protest peacefully and security personnel to protect peaceful protests and to act proportionately in maintaining law and order.  The UN is working closely with the Government to respond to the challenges posed by the current pandemic, and we remain committed to helping Lebanon address the ongoing social and economic challenges, and we look forward to the Government's economic rescue plan in that regard.  James, are you back on?

Question:  Another question?  On UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon]… on UNIFIL?  The COVID… regarding COVID‑19, what's the situation in the UNIFIL area, please?

Spokesman:  Well, I know that our colleagues in UNIFIL, the various [inaudible] have been working with the local population, distributing aid with its personal protective [equipment] and being supportive of the Government's efforts in the south to help stem the growth of the pandemic.  James?  I can't hear you.

Question:  Is there cases… COVID cases?

Spokesman:  Let me check.  I will check about cases in the UN, and we'll get back to you on that.

Spokesman:  In the meantime, I will… James, if you're on, I'll go to you.  All right.  Let's go to Edie then.  Edie?

Question:  Yep.  Thank you very much, Steph.  A couple of questions.  First, on Syria, Human Rights Watch just released a report saying that critical medical aid is not getting into north‑west… north‑east Syria to prepare and get ready for cases of COVID‑19.  I wonder if the UN has that same assessment that medical aid is not getting into north‑east Syria.  Secondly, can you tell us if… what the UN is doing, both in Yemen, in… I know you just issued a statement, but what Martin Griffiths is doing to… specifically to try to help in ending that conflict in southern Yemen, and there's also been renewed fighting and a drone attack in Libya.  And finally… finally, are we going to get to hear from the Secretary‑General at a press conference this week?

Spokesman:  On your last one, I very much hope so, but, until it's confirmed, I don't want to announce it and get in trouble again, but we are moving in the right direction on that.  All right.  Let me try to see if my memory remembers what I've told you.  So, on Yemen, Mr. Griffiths is continuing to talk to all the parties involved.  The Secretary‑General, over the last few weeks, has also been working the phones, speaking to Yemeni leaders, speaking to Saudi leaders, speaking to Iranians and others in trying to resolve the situation in the country as a whole and to try to push people in the right direction to get them to work and coalesce around Martin Griffiths and his efforts.  On Syria, I… you know, let me take a look at what Human Rights Watch says.  Obviously, it has been a challenge for us to get all the medical aid that is necessary into north‑east Syria, but let me see if I can get you a bit more detailed comment.  On Libya, I mean, what I can… I don't have a confirmation of this latest drone attack.  We've, obviously, been concerned by the ongoing situation there.  Our acting Special Representative, Stephanie Williams, has been in touch with the President of the Presidency Council, the Prime Minister of the Government… and the Prime Minister of [the Government of] National Accord, Mr. [Faiez] Serraj, earlier… that was today.  She also spoke to the head of the House of Representatives.  She has been speaking to a number of other leaders.  I think her message is clear, that the Libyan Political Agreement and the institutions that emanate from it remain the sole internationally recognised framework of governance in Libya, and that's very much in line with the Security Council resolutions, and that any political change must take place through democratic means, not through any military means.  And I think I've answered your list.

Correspondent:  You did.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Oh.  You're very welcome.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I start with Libya and… because [Khalifa] Haftar, General Haftar, last night, he designated himself as the supreme leader of Libya, and he cancelled… he called for completely abolishing the Libyan Political Agreement signed in Shkirat.  So, he said, it is behind us; it's null and void.  This major development… there was a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry and from the US.  Why there is no specific statement that addresses this development that Haftar took last night?  That's one question.  Yeah, please…

Spokesman:  Our position is unchanged, and I think I've just answered it in my response to Edie, that it's very clear that, for us, the Libyan Political Agreement, the institutions that come out of this agreement are… remain the sole internationally recognized framework of governance in Libya.  And that's in line with Security Council resolutions, which have been often repeated.  So, that's our position.  I would let all of you do the compare and contrast, but our position is very clear.  What is your second question, Abdelhamid?

Question:  Okay.  My second question, in Saudi Arabia, a human right activist called Abdullah al‑Hamid died in his prison for medical negligence.  And even Callamard… Ms. Agnès Callamard issued a tweet on that, and there was so much talk about this incident.  Do you follow what's going on the Saudi jails?  Do you… are you… did you take note of the death of this human right activist, Abdullah al‑Hamid?

Spokesman:  I will take a look.  I would also maybe advise you to talk to our human rights colleagues, but let me see if I can get you anything on that.  Oh, and… sorry.  Go ahead.  If you have another question, that's fine.  Go ahead.

Question:  Yeah, my last question is, can you confirm that the Secretary‑General sent a letter to the Secretary‑General of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul‑Gheit, confirming that this SG opposes Israeli Coalition Government agreement to annex part of the West Bank on 1 July?

Spokesman:  I'll check if a letter has been sent, but I think our position on annexation was delivered in very clear terms during Mr. Mladenov's briefing last week, and I think that is… so, whether or not it was also sent in a letter to the Arab League, I can check, but our position on that is very clear.  [He later confirmed that a letter had been sent.]

Sylviane, you had a question about the cases in UNIFIL, and I can report that one military observer who is, in fact, serving with UNTSO [United Nations Truce Supervision Organization] is… but assigned to UNIFIL has one… has tested positive for the virus.  That's the only case in that area.  Evelyn, I think you had a question and then Benny.  Evelyn?

Question:  Yes.  How are you, Steph?

Spokesman:  I'm just dandy.

Question:  Okay.  With computers scarce in many countries, is there a functioning system of transmitting video and other news through mobile phones, which are far more prevalent?

Spokesman:  Sorry.  Where?

Question:  Is there a system of transmitting video and other announcement through mobile phones, which are far more prevalent in many countries than computer…?

Spokesman:  I mean, I know our colleagues at WHO are doing whatever they can using the technology that's available.  Obviously, 5G or 4G technology enables people to see video on their phones.  If they don't have smartphones, I think text messages are the best way to go.  Mr. Benny Avni and then we'll go to James Bays, who I think is ready.

Correspondent:  I like the "mister".  Steph, one question.  I know you usually don't answer questions about security…

Spokesman:  You're a little close to the camera.  You're scaring me, Benny.

Question:  What?

Spokesman:  You're a little close to the camera.  You're scaring me.  That's it.  That's better.

Question:  Better?  Okay.  I know you usually don't answer questions about Security Council affairs, but does anyone in the UN system, OLA [Office for Legal Affairs] maybe, have an opinion in whether… on whether the US is still a member that can… that can invoke a snap‑back in the case of Iran?

Spokesman:  That's a very good question, and I think you've pre‑empted my answer.  I will let you discuss that with the signatories of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] or members of the Security Council.  That is… whether or not we have an opinion is one thing, but I think that's something that will have to be decided by the concerned Member States.

Question:  Does the Secretary‑General have… does the Secretary‑General have an opinion on whether a snap‑back is in order?

Spokesman:  I will let the Member States of the JCPOA and the Security Council express themselves on that.  Mr. Bays?

Question:  I will try again.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Perfectly.

Question:  Well, I don't know what's going on.  I had to re‑log‑in to this damn thing three times.  I'm not changing the settings.  There we go.  There we go.  So, I think the question already about General Haftar declaring autocratic rule in Libya has been asked, but what diplomacy, given this dramatic development, is the SG planning?  Does he plan himself to speak to General Haftar?  Does he plan to speak to those who bankroll and supply him with weapons, notably the UAE [United Arab Emirates] and Egypt?

Spokesman:  We, obviously, continue to be concerned by the situation in Libya and our Special Representative on the ground, our acting Special Representative, Stephanie Williams, is in touch with various leaders and factions in Libya.  And I'll leave it at that for the time being.

Question:  And a follow‑up, if I can.  You refer to the acting Special Representative — perhaps not a great time not to have someone permanent on the job.  Certainly, Security Council members I spoke to say they believe it's an absolute priority for the Secretary‑General to find someone to take on this role.  How is that search going?

Spokesman:  We also believe it's an absolute priority, and we are moving ahead.

All right.  Iftikhar, your reference… is asking about my reference to actions by the Myanmar Government in Rakhine State despite the SG's call for a ceasefire.

The representative on the ground, the Resident Coordinator, is in touch with the Government and is passing the Secretary‑General's message along to all those who need to hear it.  Florencia, any more questions?  All right.  Let's see what our host…

Question:  Steph, can I have follow‑up?

Spokesman:  Abdelhamid, you can always have a follow‑up.  It's… the price is the same.

Question:  Going back to Haftar issue, the Secretary‑General issued a statement on the development on Yemen, although Mr. Griffiths did issue a statement.  So, Griffiths' statement was not enough to address the developments in south Yemen, so the SG himself issued a second statement.  Now we are in front of a major coup in Libya, a general who appointed himself supreme leader, although those who put him in place, the House of Representatives, issued a peace initiative last Thursday.  And it was really accepted or at least dealt with, and many parts of the world accepted that.  So, he… he staged a coup not only against the National Accord Government in Tripoli, but also against the House of Representatives and Agila Saleh, the head of the Parliament… how could this development pass without a strong statement from the Secretary‑General?

Spokesman:  Abdelhamid, I think we are all very much aware of what is going on on the ground.  I reiterated twice our principled and legal position on what we know and what we believe to be the correct political institutions in Libya.  We reserve the right to use different diplomatic expressions, whether it's statements, answers to questions or whatever, in response to different situations.  There is such a thing as public diplomacy.  There is also going on behind the scenes in private phone calls.  We employ the tools that we feel are… can be the most effective, but it is clear that, to get progress, whether it's in Libya, in Yemen, in Syria and other crises, it is not only the parties on the ground, but it is also those who have an influence on the parties on the ground, and we remain in touch with everyone.  All right.  On that note, today is Tuesday, I believe.  At least it still remains so.  We shall see you on Wednesday.  Take care and enjoy your lunches.

For information media. Not an official record.