15 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, and happy Friday, because according to my calendar today in fact is Friday.  As for every other day of the week, please remember to mute your microphones, and if you don’t send video, we are going to see the wrong face in the panel, and we don’t want that to happen!

**Chief Executives Board

Yesterday, the Secretary-General brought together the Principals of 31 UN system entities in a virtual meeting of the UN System Chief Executives Board, otherwise known as the CEB.  This is the longest-standing and highest-level coordination forum of the UN system. 

The Secretary-General gave an overview of the state of the world, reflecting on the future of multilateralism, beyond the immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as on the risks brought by the current crisis for human rights, global governance, ethics, and international cooperation. 

**COVID-19/Peacekeeping Missions

Couple of updates to share with you in response to the support provided by our peacekeeping missions in Africa.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as part of its support to authorities in the Kasai-Central Province, the UN Mission (MONUSCO) installed containers in the central prison, located in Kananga. 

The containers will be used as quarantine quarters for detainees with suspected cases of the virus.  The Peacekeeping Mission has also supported the central prison in other ways, including by providing staple food items. 

In the Central African Republic, the UN peacekeeping mission there (MINUSCA) says that they have launched a COVID-19 sensitization campaign in Bria.  The campaign involves motorcycle taxi drivers, who deliver messages with megaphones. 

The UN Mission has also conducted a media training for journalists from local radio stations on coverage of the pandemic.  This included tips to help prevent the spread of rumours and disinformation. 

The UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has provided prevention kits that include masks, soap, hand sanitizer and laser thermometers to commanders of the reconstituted Armed Forces. 

Radio MIKADO FM, the radio station operated by the Mission, has shared virus prevention messages in local languages and sensitization radio programmes with over 63 local radio stations across the whole of Mali. 

Working in partnership with an international NGO (non-governmental organization) in the Mopti region, our peacekeeping colleagues have also conducted awareness-raising activities and distributed hygiene kits to a school.  The Mission also installed a public handwashing station at the school’s entrance. 


Turning to Lesotho:  While the country has only recently registered its first confirmed case of the virus, the UN team on the ground, led by the Resident Coordinator, Salvator Niyonzima, has been supporting the Government’s efforts in addressing the pandemic in areas including public health and the economy. 

The UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme against HIV/AIDS) Programme is also helping in setting up systems and guidance for surveillance of COVID-19 cases and contact tracing.

UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) is helping the Government to spread information about the virus over the radio and on social media. 

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) is focusing on preventing and addressing violence against women and girls, and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) is redirecting resources to address the immediate socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic with the Government and partners, and that includes the World Bank. 

COVID-19 has also resulted in a migration emergency in Lesotho and its neighbours.  The UN migration agency (IOM) is assessing the plight of migrants returning to Lesotho, with many people living on the border with South Africa needing food, shelter, and obviously, medical attention. 


And we have had several updates on the deteriorating situation in the Sahel.  In a joint statement issued yesterday, eight UN agencies and NGO partners working in the region, they say that the crisis is now affecting the highest number of people ever recorded.

The group warned that 24 million people, half of them children, currently need life-saving assistance and protection.  The deterioration of the security situation has also led to ever-growing numbers of displaced people, within their own countries and across borders.

Rising hunger, inequality and the direct and indirect consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are compounding this crisis.  This includes a reported rise in gender-based violence. 

There are 4.5 million internally displaced people and refugees in the Sahel.  There are 12 million people who are food insecure at crisis and emergency levels.  And 1.6 million severely malnourished children.

Aid agencies aim to provide assistance to 17 million people and require $2.8 billion to do so.  So far, only 18 per cent of the amount has been received.


And in Nigeria, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that aid services will resume for 42,000 internally displaced people who are sheltering in a secondary school in Ngala in Borno State.  Humanitarian assistance was suspended for a month after an attack against an aid worker.

Yesterday, there were meetings to ease tensions between displaced people and humanitarian partners, who are providing food, shelter, water and sanitation, health and psychosocial support, among other services.

Aid workers have also been trained on virus prevention measures and they are setting up handwashing stations across camps in Borno State and quarantine shelters. 

**World Food Programme Air Services

And we have an update on humanitarian efforts to ensure that lifesaving equipment, medicine and personnel reaches those who need it in every corner of the world. 

Today, the World Food Programme (WFP) launched international passenger air service to bring humanitarian and health workers from Ethiopia to Tanzania.  The flight was the first of its kind since commercial air services were suspended in Tanzania, as part of the country’s efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus. 

The passenger air service is part of WFP's global system to provide logistics support for the pandemic response.

As we mentioned a few days ago, WFP's air bridge system is based on Global Humanitarian Response Hubs where supplies are manufactured — in Guangzhou (China), Liège (Belgium) and Dubai (UAE) — and regional hubs in Ethiopia, Ghana, South Africa, Malaysia, Panama and Dubai. 

Flights operate between the global and regional hubs, and a fleet of smaller planes move cargo and humanitarian personnel into specific countries, such as [the United Republic of] Tanzania.

Once the service is fully operational, WFP, which runs the air service on behalf of the UN, expects to maintain regular flights to key locations around the world.

In [the United Republic of] Tanzania, flights for humanitarian and health workers are expected to take place every week.


And in Bangladesh, we along with our partners have stepped up the response to COVID-19 in Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar following the first confirmed case there of the COVID virus.  In addition to one Rohingya refugee testing positive, one member of the local Bangladeshi host community has also tested positive. 

The UNHCR says there are serious concerns about the potentially severe impact of the virus in the densely populated refugee settlements which are sheltering some 860,000 Rohingya refugees.  Another 400,000 Bangladeshis live in the surrounding host communities. 

These populations are considered to be among the most at risk globally in this pandemic. 

For its part, UNICEF is preparing a specialized treatment centre with 210 beds, while providing personal protective equipment in Cox’s Bazar.  UNICEF is also supplying safe water and soap for 240,000 Rohingya refugees, more than half of whom are children.

The World Food Programme, for its part, issued an urgent call for $320 million today to provide food and cash transfers to the most vulnerable families in Bangladesh in the midst of the pandemic. 

At food distribution sites in refugee camps, WFP is ensuring physical distancing.  It is using loudspeakers in camps to circulate information about food distributions and virus prevention strategies. 

WFP is also continuing to prepare for the approaching monsoon season, which could further complicate the current situation.  Last year, more than 4,000 refugee families were displaced in a 24-hour period during one of the heaviest downpours. 


And In Belarus, where there are more than 25,000 confirmed cases of the virus and nearly 150 confirmed deaths according to the World Health Organization, the UN team, led by the Resident Coordinator, Joanna Kazana, is supporting the Government’s efforts to ensure access to health services and social protection, particularly to the most vulnerable people.

The UN migration agency and UNHCR are stepping up services and cash assistance to migrants and refugees and are setting up an information hotline. 

UNICEF and the UN Development Programme are supplying thousands of litres of disinfectants and antibacterial soap, as well as gloves and masks. 

To address social exclusion, the UN Population Fund and the Red Cross Society have joined forces with a global tech company to encourage and coordinate volunteers to help older people during the pandemic.

**Central America

And a note on the Central America, where the UN refugee agency today warned that escalating violence and insecurity, coupled with COVID-related restrictions, is exacerbating hardship for tens of thousands of people in the region. 

As of the end of last year, violence has forced some 720,000 people to flee their homes.  Almost half of them are now displaced within their own country, while others have fled across borders. 

**International Day of Families

Today marks the International Day of Families.  The day provides an opportunity to promote awareness of issues relating to families and to increase the knowledge of the social, economic and demographic processes affecting them.

This year, this Day comes at a time of one of the most challenging global health and social crises.  The COVID-19 pandemic brings into sharp focus the importance of investing in social policies protecting the most vulnerable individuals and families. 

The UN added that it is the families who bear the brunt of the crisis, sheltering their members from harm, caring for out-of-school children and, at the same time, continuing their work responsibilities. 

And at a time where some of us are away from their families and others are spending a lot of time with their families, that is a very important day to note.

Okay.  I think I've spoken enough.  Let's hear from you.

**Questions and Answers


Question:  Thank you, Steph, and good afternoon.  Several NGOs have asked the UN to call for the postponement of elections in Burundi, which is harassing opponents, thrown out WHO, is clamping down on the media and so forth.  Any reaction, please?

Spokesman:  Well, we're on… the… first of all, the… as… the… it is the sovereign right of Burundi to set its date for its elections.  Various parts of the UN system have expressed their concern about the political situation.  We have, as well as the World Health Organization and the International Commission on Burundi, notably on how to… on the lack of public health measures that should… that are not in place during this election.


Question:  And…

Spokesman:  Yeah.

Question:  Yeah.  And Cox's Bazar, has there really been testing?  It seems like whatever number the UN comes out with, very, very low.

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, this was the first report.  One member of the refugee community and one member of the local [inaudible] community having been infect… tested positive.  It may be that there are other cases, but obviously, this is of concern.  And I think, as I've just underscored, the UN system there is fully mobilized to stop the spread and mitigate any impact that it will have.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Edie and then Majeed.

Question:  Thank you very much, Steph, and happy almost weekend, if weekends mean anything these days.

The Fifth Committee met this week, and I wonder if you could confirm some figures, that $1.63 billion is owed to the regular budget as of 14 May and $2.14 billion to the peacekeeping budget, and I wonder if you could also give us the figures of how much the United States owes.

Spokesman:  Sure.  Let me see… yes, you know what?  Let me get some detailed figures on that.  I mean, what I know is that, as of 14 May, the total unpaid assessments under the regular budget and the peacekeeping budget amount to about… so $1.63 billion unpaid in the regular budget and $2.14 billion unpaid for peacekeeping.  I will… I'll see whatever figures I can share with you.

Correspondent:  Yeah, I'd like the US figures since I'm assuming they are the biggest at the moment.

Spokesman:  Yeah.  Majeed.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have a question on Syria.  It's a bit long one and I need to explain it.  According to a report by our foreign policy colleague Colum Lynch, the UN and the WHO will no longer fund aid organization that deliver food, medicine to millions of people in need in the Kurdish north… north‑eastern Syria unless those aid organization get permission from Assad regime, which is… as you know, is almost impossible.  So, no aid if you don't have the blessing of Assad regime. 

Regardless of political excuses, which I'm sure your humanitarian partners have a long list of, UN is practically enabling Syrian Government and Russia to starve millions of people to achieve their political agenda.  Isn't that an accurate description of what's happening right now?

Spokesman:  No.  I think the… what I can tell you is that what we are doing through our cross‑border work, which was re‑authorized recently, we are doing whatever we can and, I think, the host… I mean, we're updating you regularly on the number of trucks that go through.  We're trying to reach, with our partners, everyone who needs to be reached in that area.  We're also…

Question:  [inaudible]

Spokesman:  I'm sorry?

Spokesman:  The foreign policy report.  So, those aid organization in north‑east Syria…

Spokesman:  What I'm telling you… what I am telling you…

Question:  [inaudible]

Spokesman:  Majeed, it's hard to do a back‑and‑forth on this platform.  Okay?  What I can tell you is that, I think, the basic premise of the article was false and that we are doing whatever we can to help everyone in Syria who needs help.

Question:  Just a follow‑up, Stéphane.  So, you're saying that the aid organization, in order for them to get aid… funding from the UN, they do not need to get permission or license from Damascus.  Is that what you're saying? That's the premise of…

Spokesman:  What I am saying… the article said that we had given legal… we had received or shared legal guidance that agencies can only provide with funding to NGOs that operate with… in north‑east Syria with the approval of the Government of Syria.  What I can tell you is that we did not seek, receive or share any legal guidance to that effect that UN agencies could not fund NGOs that provide cross‑border assistance.


Question:  Yes.  Hello, Steph.  Question of… on budget too.  How much do you spare each month with an empty building?

Spokesman:  Well, you know, it's a complicated situation, like everything with budget.  I think our handling of the current pandemic has, obviously, meant that we're saving money on some expenses, while, at the same time, we have to deal with some new and unforeseen costs. 

So, clearly, on issues of movement, travel restrictions, it's meant that we are seeing some reductions in the number of official business travel, travel of representatives.  There's also been a reduction in the hiring of experts and on general operating expenses, such as utilities and so forth, and no doubt the escalators to… for James' use. 

And at the same time, we have some additional expenses.  So, we're increasing some of the ICT infrastructure, video conferencing, the computers, everything that we need to do our work remotely.  The increased telecommuting has put pressure on all of those demands.  In some places, we're seeing additional funding demands for quarantine facilities, as well as medical supplies and equipment and so forth.

So, we continue… in a sense, it's… it's not as if this pandemic is saving us a lot of money.  So, at the bottom line, we're saving money in some, but we're increasing money in other quarters, notably on IT infrastructures and health, medical supplies and so forth.

Iftikhar had a question that he's written in:  “Does the SG support the call made by 140 world leaders the eventual coronavirus vaccine should be free of charge for all?”

I think what is important — and I think the Secretary‑General made it very clear in his remarks to the Brussels meeting — is that this vaccine should be a global public good.

Okay.  Any other questions?

Just as a matt… of business… housekeeping matter, we may be switching over the next week to a WebEx platform, which will allow more interaction.  We'll be in touch with you guys.  I think we'll need to do a test session, but we did a test internally yesterday, and it works better than this platform.  There's no… we can all be in the same room, virtual room, that is.  So, we'll keep you posted on that.

Unless Florencia tells me to stay on, I will wish you guys all a great weekend.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.