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14 May 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 you all.  Remember, mute your mics and the video, send the audio when you want to ask questions.

When you are done with me, we'll have Reem Abaza, the Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly.  She'll be on the same platform, so please do not hang up when I leave.

**Mental Health

In a new policy brief, titled “COVID-19 and the need for action on mental health”, the Secretary-General presents a series of recommendations to ensure that mental health services are fully included in pandemic response and recovery plans. 

Mental health is at the core of our humanity, he said, but after decades of neglect and underinvestment in these services, the pandemic is now hitting families and communities with additional mental stress.  Even when the pandemic is brought under control, he added, grief, anxiety and depression will continue to affect people and communities.

The Secretary-General calls for an expansion of programmes currently available.  He adds that policies must support and care for those affected by mental health conditions, as well as protect their human rights and dignity.  Governments, civil society and health authorities should urgently come together to address the mental health dimension of the pandemic, he says.

He also calls on governments to announce ambitious commitments on this at the forthcoming World Health Assembly.

In his own video message to support the new policy brief, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus], said that if there was ever a time to invest in mental health, it is now.  He added that we must use this opportunity to build services that are fit for the future, inclusive, community-based and affordable.

**COVID-19/Vaccine

More than 140 current and former world leaders, as well as Nobel laureates, UN officials and experts, have signed an open letter calling on all Governments to unite behind a so-called people’s vaccine against COVID-19.  This appeal, which was coordinated by UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme against HIV/AIDS) and Oxfam, comes ahead of the virtual meeting of the health ministers at the World Health Assembly starting 18 May.

**COVID-19/Social Protection

The International Labour Organization (ILO) today said that the current crisis has exposed devastating gaps in social protection coverage in developing countries.

Two briefing papers released by the ILO warn that these gaps could compromise recovery plans, expose millions to poverty, and affect readiness to cope with similar crises in future.

The analysis shows that 55 per cent of the world’s population — that’s nearly as many as 4 billion people — are not covered by social insurance or social assistance.  Globally, only 20 per cent of unemployed people are covered by unemployment benefits, and, in some regions, the coverage is much lower.  ILO noted that recovery will only be sustained and future crises prevented if developing countries can transform their crisis response measures into comprehensive social protection systems.  More info online.

**Security Council/Yemen

And in other items from around the world, this morning, Martin Griffiths, the Special Envoy for Yemen, briefed Security Council members on the situation in that country.  Speaking by video, he recalled that he had shared draft agreements with the Government of Yemen and Ansar Allah at the end of March on a nation-wide ceasefire, humanitarian and economic measures, and the urgent resumption of the political process. 

He said that he was pleased to report that there has been significant progress on these negotiations, in particular with respect to the ceasefire.  However, he added, the ceasefire is part of the broader package that needs to be agreed to in full.  Differences remain on some of the humanitarian and economic measures in that package.  Mr. Griffiths said that he is deeply concerned about the situation in the south, where he fears that a perfect storm is brewing.  The people of Aden, he said, in particular, face outbreaks of COVID-19 and other diseases believed to include malaria, cholera, and dengue fever.

Meanwhile, Ramesh Rajasingham, the acting Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, informed Security Council members that, as of this morning, there were 72 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Yemen, including 13 deaths.  Sixty-two of these cases — more than 85 per cent — were reported in just the last ten days, adding that humanitarian agencies have every reason to believe that community transmission is taking place across Yemen.  Official reports are lagging behind actual infections, just as they have in many other places.

**Libya

In Libya, fighting continues in and around Tripoli — that’s despite repeated calls for a cessation of hostilities to allow national authorities to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, there were reports of rockets being fired in Tripoli, reportedly causing civilian casualties.  Hostilities were also reported near the Tripoli Central Hospital.

Our humanitarian partners say that if Libya is to have any chance against COVID-19, the ongoing conflict must come to an immediate halt.

We reiterate our call once again for all parties to the conflict to do everything in their power to uphold their responsibility to protect civilians in accordance with international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles.  Despite enormous challenges, humanitarian partners continue to deliver urgent assistance to people in need, reaching more than 138,000 people so far this year.  In addition, more than 3,000 people displaced in April in clashes in Ain Zara and Tarhuna have been reached with humanitarian assistance.

While donors have been generous, a boost in funding to continue humanitarian programmes is urgently required.  As of today, the Libya Humanitarian Response Plan, which requires $130 million, is only 14 per cent funded.

**COVID-19/Peacekeeping

Our colleagues in peacekeeping tell us that the African Union-UN mission in Darfur (UNAMID) continues to patrol camps for internally displaced people while following safety protocols for the COVID-19 virus, including social distancing.  The Mission has also established rules on limiting the size of crowds.  The UN-AU Mission continues to raise awareness for preventing the spread of the virus and has also established a “COVID-19 Rights Watch” initiative, which looks at the impact of emergency measures on human rights.

In South Sudan, the UN Mission there (UNMISS) continues to support local efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.  The Mission has renovated a hospital as well as [rehabilitating] clinics, as well as supplying tents and beads to bolster the health system’s capacity to treat COVID-19 patients.  The Mission is also providing new water tanks and generators, personal protective equipment, and vehicles to be used as ambulances.

**COVID-19/Myanmar

An update from Myanmar to share with you, where the UN team there and our partners are supporting the Government to ensure the safety of frontline healthcare workers.

A project by the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), with the support of donor Governments, is providing personal protective equipment to the Ministry of Health, health-care providers and communities.  The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and our partners are supplying surgical masks and other paraphernalia to maternal health facilities in the capital, as well as to other states.  UNFPA is also providing supplies to midwives and helping to train health workers on how to treat pregnant women during the pandemic.  UN-Women and our partners are helping women to transition their livelihood activities towards mask production.  This project has a production capacity of 1,500-2,000 masks per week.

**COVID-19/Thailand

And in neighbouring Thailand, which has more than 3,000 confirmed cases of the virus and 56 reported deaths, the UN team, led by the Resident Coordinator, Gita Sabharwal, is working with the Government to address the impacts of the pandemic and is focusing on the most vulnerable groups.

In the northern part of the country, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has provided treatment facilities for 32,000 refugees coming from Myanmar.  UNCHR also provides soap and water supplies for handwashing at entry and exit points in camps.

Given Thailand’s large informal sector, the UN is supporting the Government to scale up social protection to save livelihoods and jobs, with an emphasis on women, the elderly and youth.  Working with small and medium-sized businesses, UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and its partners are providing 15,000 food packs for medical crews in 16 hospitals.  This is helping 17,000 restaurant workers keep their jobs.

The UN team is also partnering with policy think tanks to monitor the impact of the Government’s fiscal stimulus package and is advising on a more inclusive recovery to get Thailand back on track to achieve the [Sustainable Development Goals].

**COVID-19/Ghana

Turning to Ghana, which has more than 5,400 confirmed cases and 24 deaths, the UN team is addressing the impacts of the pandemic on youth, with a focus on unemployment, sexual and gender-based violence and limited access to health.  [With nearly 60 per cent of Ghana’s population being under the age of 25, UNFPA, the Secretary-General’s Youth Envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake, and the African Union’s Youth Envoy, Aya Chebbi, held online sessions to empower youth and increase their understanding of the disease.]  More than 300 young people from Ghana and other countries in Africa, Asia and Europe have joined these sessions.  The Resident Coordinator a.i., Sylvia Lopez-Ekra, encouraged the participants to see themselves as powerful agents of change and partners in the COVID-19 response.  She added that we need the innovation and drive of young people if we are to transform and reshape our societies.

**Burundi

WHO's Regional Director for Africa said that she was made aware yesterday of the decision by the Government of Burundi, which has asked the WHO Representative and three other people, one of whom is a consultant, to leave the country immediately.  The WHO’s Regional Director said that the Representative, Dr. Walter Kazadi Mulombo, is a longstanding, well-respected staff member of WHO, an extremely competent person, who is also a good leader and manager.  WHO is in communication with the Government of Burundi to clarify and understand the reasoning behind the decision they have taken, and in the meantime, they are working with the UN system in the country to organize the departure of staff.

Also on Burundi, in a statement issued today, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi said they are alarmed that the official electoral campaigns for the presidential, legislative and local elections, scheduled for [20] May, is characterized by an increase in political intolerance and numerous acts of violence and human rights violations. 

**Philippines

In the Philippines, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that Typhoon Vongfong made landfall today in the Eastern Samar Province.  The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and our partners are reviewing the situation in areas likely to be impacted by the typhoon.  UN agencies and their partners have strong partnerships with local civil society organizations in the area, following their support to the response to Typhoon Kammuri last December.  If needed, they can rapidly assess needs to support the Government in these efforts.

**Lesotho

And I was asked before the briefing about the latest developments in Lesotho, and I can say that the Secretary-General takes note of the termination of the coalition government in the Kingdom of Lesotho in a consensual decision of the National Assembly.  He calls for the formation of a new government, so that the Kingdom’s leadership could intensify its focus on addressing key challenges ahead, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the implementation of the Basotho-led and ‑owned national reforms agreed in last year's national dialogue.  The Secretary-General commends SADC (Southern African Development Community) in its efforts to ensure lasting peace and stability in Lesotho.

**Amazon

Yesterday, I was asked about our work to protect indigenous populations in the Amazon.  What I can say is that various UN agencies, including UNHCR, the UN Migration Agency (IOM) and the UN Population Fund, are providing hygiene kits, shelter, access to medical facilities and health care, and food to indigenous communities in the region to help them in the context of the pandemic.

In Brazil, our team there is preparing a Plan of Action for the Socioeconomic Response and Recovery to the pandemic and the protection of indigenous populations threatened by the virus.  The plan includes mobilization of funds for specific initiatives aimed at increasing protection of indigenous groups.  And the UN Human Rights Office tells us they’re also continuing their work, advocating for indigenous rights with public authorities at the federal, state, and municipal levels.

In addition, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is continuing its work with the Government of Brazil to help target illegal deforestation, while UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) are working to establish more biosphere reserves in the region and are reaching out to the communities that live there.

**COVID-19/Ceasefires

Yesterday, Rosemary DiCarlo, the Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, spoke at a virtual meeting of the Stockholm Forum.  The topic was “Sustaining Peace in the Time of COVID-19.”

She told participants that the Secretary-General’s global appeal for a ceasefire received support around the world, including from over 110 Member States, as well as regional partners, civil society actors and religious leaders.  The appeal also resonated with 24 armed groups.

She warned, however, that this support has not always resulted in tangible improvements on the ground.  Ms. DiCarlo said that there was a need to put the collective resolve and weight of the international community behind efforts to silence the guns.  Those backing warring parties, or supplying them with weapons, must also use their influence on the combatants to cease hostilities.

**Press Event Today

And press events today: at around 5:30 p.m. this afternoon, the current and former EU members of the Security Council — Belgium, Estonia, Germany, France and Poland — will brief reporters virtually on the situation in Myanmar.

**UN Contributions

And our fully paid up roll has gone up to 91 members, thanks to Slovenia.  Our friends in Ljubljana have paid their regular budget dues in full.  This is greatly appreciated.

After I am done and we are done with each other, just remember that Reem will be here to talk to you and answer your questions.

All right.  Let's go to our friendly moderator.  Let's see what she has to tell me.  Bear with me two seconds.

**Questions and Answers

And we will start with Edie.

Question:  Thank you very much.  Hi.  Hi, everybody.  On Burundi, AP understands that the WHO representative was kicked out because he raised concerns about crowded political rallies ahead of the presidential election.  Does the Secretary‑General have any comment on that?

And as a follow‑up to both the Secretary‑General's ceasefire call and Rosemary DiCarlo's speech yesterday, can we actually get some kind of a briefing on exactly how many countries, groups, have responded and whether any of those have actually materialized into a cessation of violence and, if so, the prospects for those being turned into anything long term?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  So, we hear you on that. 

On Burundi, the…  we've seen, I think, in the press the explanations by the Government of Burundi.  Our colleagues at WHO are trying to get more details. 

The Commission, the International Commission on Burundi, has also…  in the statement they issued today, also raised concerns about the lack of application of WHO guidelines on elections in the time of COVID having to do with social distancing.  Our message to every country is really to follow those guidelines put forth by WHO on social distancing, especially in an electoral context.

Mr. Bays?

Correspondent:  Hello there.  Hello there, Steph.  Sorry.  Can you hear me okay?

Spokesman:  Perfectly.

Question:  Great.  So, at expert level, Council members…  Security Council members have been seized on Iran and resolution 2231.  That is now getting very controversial.  As you'll be aware, the US pulled out of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) but still believes it has legal standing to trigger snap‑back, something that it is threatening to do down the line.  As we seem to have a showdown over the legal position on whether they do have legal standing and whether they can declare a snap‑back, what is the Secretary‑General's view on this, and has he gotten legal guidance?

Spokesman:  You know, this is an issue for Member States themselves to sort out and to interpret the resolutions.  As you say, discussions are ongoing.  It is not, at this point, for the Secretary‑General to express his opinion.  As you say, Member States and experts are, from what we gather, deeply involved in discussions on this issue.

Question:  Deep disagreement.  They're in deep disagreement, Steph.  So, does it not seem sensible…

Spokesman:  No, no, no I didn't…

Question:  …that the Secretary‑General and his…  and his Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) provide some guidance to Member States?

Spokesman:  As a general rule, Member… and this has been through the ages, if Member States request, requests are submitted and then…  [inaudible].

Abdelhamid.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Yes.  Thank you, Stéphane.  As you know, the US Secretary of State [Michael] Pompeo was in Israel, and he endorsed their plan to annex the land on 1 July.  That is getting now more impact on the region.  So, why the SG does not say something, as he represents the highest morality of the office?

Spokesman:  Abdelhamid, you and I are continuing our travels on parallel roads.  The Secretary‑General has expressed himself, especially through the statement delivered on his behalf to the Security Council by Nickolay Mladenov, of his deep concern for any unilateral action, especially annexation and the damage that would do for the prospect of a two‑State solution.

Question:  Sorry, Stéphane.  You know and I know that it's different when you report to the Security Council once a month and you read the report and you bury something that in the lines and a statement issued by the Secretary‑General expressing the value…  I mean the importance of the development and the view of the Office of the Secretary‑General.  That's two different things.

Spokesman:  I…  Abdelhamid, I don't agree with you, because I think the…  first of all, our position on annexation is anything but buried.  It is clear.  It is available for anyone to see, and it is available for anyone to hear.  It was…  in its latest incarnation, it was delivered in a very public, open meeting of the Security Council where, at the horseshoe table, you had both the Permanent Representative of Israel and the Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine.  So, I don't think we could have been any clearer.

Sherwin?

Correspondent:  Just one more little thing.  I'm sorry.

Spokesman:  No, please.

Question:  Yesterday, a 15‑year‑old boy in the refugee camp of Fawwar near Hebron — his name is Zeid Fadl Qaisiyyia — was shot in the head by the Israeli army.  Is anybody aware of this development?

Spokesman:  I will check with Mr. Mladenov's office.  [He later noted that UNICEF had tweeted, “UNICEF is appalled that a 17-year-old boy was killed yesterday with live ammunition in a Hebron refugee camp.”]

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  No problem.  Sherwin Bryce‑Pease?

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Thanks very much.  I'm hearing from UN sources that there's a great deal of pressure on Dr. Tedros, the DG (Director-General) of the WHO, to resign or leave his post early.  Are you hearing some of the things?  And what is being done to mitigate the impact of such a resignation during this pandemic?

Spokesman:  Frankly, I had personally not heard any of these rumours.  Two points.  First of all, I think the Secretary‑General has been very supportive of Dr. Tedros’ leadership, especially during this pandemic, and the work he and his team have done during Ebola. 

As you know, WHO operates in a different environment than the Secretariat.  It has its own governing body, which is the World Health Assembly, which is meeting very…  next week.

Iftikhar had a question, which I will read on his behalf:  “With the resumption of offensive military operations by the Afghan army, the Taliban attacked an army base in eastern Afghanistan today and claimed responsibility.  How does the Secretary‑General look at the resumption of hostilities that were suspended following the US-Taliban talks?”

With very grave concern.  We very much hope that all the parties will renew and restart the Afghan…  intra‑Afghan dialogue.  I think what we have seen is…  in terms of the violence over the last 48 hours, with an attack on a funeral, an attack on a maternity ward, which defies any words; we've run out of words of condemnation for such horrendous, heinous and inhumane, inhuman violence, so our concern is that we will see an uptick in operations and violence as opposed to a return to the intra‑Afghan dialogues.

Arul?

Question:  Yes, regarding the resignation of World Trade Organization (UNWTO) Director‑General [Roberto] Azevêdo, do you have any comments on that?  I also want to stress that the World Trade Organization is undergoing and also the questions being raised about the future of that and world trade in general.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Yes, we've seen that news.  The Secretary‑General is very much aware of the situation.  It will be up to WTO Member States to elect new leadership. 

What I can say is I know the Secretary‑General had great admiration for the work that Mr. Azevêdo had done at the helm of the WTO.  They had met on a number of occasions.  They talked on a number of times, and we very much appreciated and…  the cooperation and the work between the UN and the WTO under his leadership. 

The WTO is a critical organization in our global trade environment, and we very much hope that their work, the work of the organization, will continue to be supported.

Toby?

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Good afternoon.  The Secretary‑General was quoted in an interview with Paris Match magazine as saying that the high‑level General Assembly meeting for this September is unlikely.  Are you able to confirm this language, and are you able to provide any more detail…?

Spokesman:  The language has been taken a bit out of context.  He didn't…  what the Secretary‑General said was an answer of…  an obvious answer of common sense, that it's hard to imagine that the traditional General Assembly with thousands and thousands of people descending on New York and on the UN compound can be held this September as if nothing happened. 

He said, obviously, different options are being looked at but that this will be a decision…  how…  what format the General Assembly will take — virtual, not virtual, a combination, different options are being looked at — those decisions will be made by the Member States, and the Secretary‑General and the Secretariat will support the Member States in implementing whatever decision they take.

Alan?

Question:  So, just to…  sorry.  Just to follow up on that, so, I was only able to read the translations of that article, but in general, it's…  you would say it's been misconstrued, the re‑reporting of that…?

Spokesman:  Yes.  Anyone who…  and you're welcome to ask Reem [Abaza], who's here, as well, who will be talking to you.  It's obvious that it's not…  we're not going to have business as usual in September, whether it's the General Assembly, whether it's any other activities in our professional and personal lives.  So, he was just giving a very common‑sense answer and saying that different options are being looked at and that, in the end, it will be the decision made by the Member States that we will support.  But he did not say that it would not happen.

Alan, RIA Novosti.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have a question regarding the New START Treaty.  As you know, it expires next year.  And Russian officials say that United States’ side doesn't give any signs on whether they are going to extend it or not. 

So, given the situation, I have a question if the United States is going to…  I mean if the UN is going to somehow address this question in more consistent way.  Maybe you should talk directly to the leaders of Russian Federation, of United States just to solve this problem, because the time is expiring.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  We believe that treaties like START are an integral part of the non‑proliferation disarmament environment that we support, and we hope that the Member States involved will find common ground to move forward in the right direction.

Ibtisam?

Question:  Hi, Steph.  So, I have two questions.  The first one is on Yemen, a follow‑up to the briefing today.  So, Mr. Griffiths talked at the beginning about his optimism, about the holding of the ceasefire, but then he went on, like, few minutes later talking about all these different areas all over Yemen that the ceasefire is not holding and the fighting are continuing.  So, I read this as a contradict…  that he's contradicting himself.  Can you explain that?

Spokesman:  No, I don't think he's contradicting himself.  I think he's underscoring some of the progress that he's seen in some areas, some of the progress in the talks.  But despite that progress, situations on the ground in part of different places…  in different parts of Yemen, there's fighting that's continuing, and the suffering of the civilian is continuing, as well.

Question:  Okay.  So, my…  I have another follow‑up on James’ question regarding Iran.  When it is a point to the Secretary‑General to give his legal opinion?  Is it only if he's asked this by the Security Council, or is there other…

Spokesman:  There is…  the Secretary‑General has given specific…  is given specific mandates by the Security Council, and he will follow…  he follows those mandates.  If there are requests that come from the Security Council, then the Secretary‑General will abide by them.  And I will leave it in that…  I will leave it with those fuzzy words.

All right.  Anybody else?  Florencia?  No?

Question:  Yes.  Gloria Kins.  I'd like to ask, what about the problems of the sanctions against the countries like North Korea and Iran, any kind of sanctions from one country to another, because of this problem of health and lack of food and lack of agriculture?  Do you think there’s a chance that can be negotiated to lift or lessen the sanctions under that circumstance?

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, the Secretary‑General has been very clear that he believes that sanctions, unilateral or other sanctions, are…  can stand in the way of recov…  of health systems recovering and that, in order to defeat this virus, we all need to succeed.  And we…  none of us will succeed until all of us succeed.  So, there needs to be global solidarity in terms of countries helping others in their fight against COVID and supporting their public health system. 

On the issue of DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), there have been some exemptions given by the DPRK Sanctions Committee to certain organizations to help with the situation in that country.

Reem, the floor is now yours.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.