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18 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.

Hello, good afternoon.  I hope you had a semblance of a weekend.  Just remember to mute your mics and send out video and audio whenever you want to add a question.

**Secretary-General — World Health Assembly

The World Health Assembly, bringing together delegations from all WHO (World Health Organization) Member States, opened a two-day virtual session today. 

Speaking at the opening, the Secretary-General said that, despite the enormous scientific and technological advances of recent decades, a microscopic virus has brought us to our knees. 

The fragility exposed by the virus is not limited to our health systems, he said, stressing that COVID-19 must be a wake-up call.  It is a time for an end to this hubris, he said. 

The Secretary-General added that our deep feelings of powerlessness must lead to greater humility. 

The Secretary-General reiterated the need for a three-point response.  First, he said, there is a need for a WHO-guided large-scale comprehensive health response that emphasizes solidarity towards developing countries. 

Second, he said the UN has called for policies to address the devastating social and economic dimensions of the crisis.  He underlined that, unless we control the spread of the virus, the economy will never recover. 

Third, the Secretary-General said that the recovery from COVID-19 must lead to more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are stronger and more resilient.  He also paid tribute to the frontline health workers. 

The Secretary-General added that the entire United Nations family stands with our WHO colleagues who are working around the world to support Member States to save lives and protect the vulnerable.  The WHO is irreplaceable, he said, calling for enhanced resources to support developing countries. 

**Deputy Secretary-General — Commencement

The Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, gave a virtual address to the commencement ceremony yesterday for the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts.  She said that the graduation is virtual because our lives have become virtual — we are living them online. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has stripped everything back to the bare essentials, Ms. Mohammed said.   And the new normal means finding ways to be together and to keep our spirits high.  She said that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing enormous suffering, and the measures to contain and overcome it are testing societies to the breaking point.

The Deputy Secretary-General said that our response must match the scale of the crisis, and must be based on unity and solidarity, with the United Nations at its forefront. 

Business as usual is over, she told the graduates, and the status quo is over.  The question is:  What will replace it?  And that, above all, is up to you, she told them. 

**Economic and Social Council

Tomorrow morning at 10 a.m., the Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSOC) annual Operational Activities Segment will start.  For the first time, it will meet virtually. 

The Secretary-General will be the keynote speaker in an interaction with Member State representatives. 

The event will be opened by Mona Juul, Permanent Representative of Norway and President of ECOSOC.  The Vice-President of ECOSOC, Juan Sandoval, who is the Deputy Permanent Representative of Mexico, will moderate the opening session. 

The discussions will focus on the importance of development coordination among UN teams, which cover 162 countries and territories, nearly a year and a half after the launch of the UN reform in the development sector.

The COVID-19 pandemic more than ever highlights the need to coordinate the health, humanitarian and socioeconomic response and recovery. 

You can watch the opening session online at webtv.un.org

**Syria — Security Council

Geir Pedersen, the Special Envoy for Syria, briefed members of the Security Council this morning on the situation in that country. 

He noted relief among Syrians that the COVID-19 pandemic has so far not hit the country at the scale initially feared — but also fears that it still could do so.  He said that he senses deep anxiety over the fact that, even if violence has for the moment somewhat abated, it does continue, and it can escalate at any moment.

In the north-west, Mr. Pedersen said, this month saw further progress in Russian-Turkish cooperation on the ground, pursuant to their March agreement that brought relative calm to Idlib.  He expressed hope that this bodes well for sustaining calm there. 

However, he added, violence continues and there is a constant risk of escalation which could unravel existing arrangement.  Mr Pedersen said that we must at all costs avoid reversion to the all-out fighting and abuses and violations we have seen in the past. 

Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock will brief the Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria tomorrow. 

**Afghanistan

In a statement issued over the weekend, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) welcomed the agreement reached between President Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah to resolve the political impasse and enable the leaders to address the grave challenges facing the country. 

For his part, the Secretary-General is encouraged by the leaders overcoming more than two months of political impasse and finding a way forward based on compromise, dialogue, and inclusivity. 

It is his hope that the agreement between President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah as Head of the new High Council for National Reconciliation can enable progress toward intra-Afghan negotiations and a comprehensive peace agreement, as well as addressing the challenges of the COVID-19 response and other developments and humanitarian needs in Afghanistan.

**Félicien Kabuga

Over the weekend, the Secretary-General welcomed the arrest, in Paris, of Félicien Kabuga.  He had been sought since 2013 by the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals for genocide and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Rwanda in 1994. 

Mr. Kabuga’s apprehension sends a powerful message that those who are alleged to have committed such crimes cannot evade justice and will eventually be held accountable, even more than a quarter of a century later. 

The Secretary-General's thoughts are first and foremost with the victims of Mr. Kabuga’s alleged crimes, the victims of other serious international crimes, and their families.  Mr. Kabuga, among others, ran Radio Milles Collines.

Ending impunity is essential for peace, security and justice, the Secretary-General said.

**Burundi

And in a statement on the upcoming elections in Burundi, the African Union Commission and the UN expressed their concern about reports of intimidation and violent clashes between supporters of opposing sides. 

In a joint statement, they call on the country's authorities to provide a safe and secure environment to allow Burundians to exercise their political and civil rights in tolerance, peace and mutual acceptance. 

The UN and the African Union Commission encourage all entities involved in organizing the 20 May elections, the defence and security forces and State-owned media to fully contribute to preserving a stable and peaceful environment, prerequisite for free, inclusive, fair, transparent and credible elections in Burundi.  

The two organizations also urge all political actors to refrain from all acts of violence and hate speech, and resort to dialogue, to enable the holding of consensual and peaceful elections. 

They also encourage the Burundian authorities to ensure and facilitate the full participation of women during this electoral process. 

**Central African Republic

And in the Central African Republic, the UN peacekeeping mission there (MINUSCA) tells us that they have launched two major operations in the country’s central region.  In Ndélé, following violent clashes we reported on at the end of last month, peacekeepers are working with the Central African Armed Forces to protect civilians and restore safety in and around the city, notably to facilitate the resumption of humanitarian activities, in particular for those who have fled their homes. 

A rapid intervention unit dedicated to large-scale operations is on the ground, as well as a detachment of UN police officers deployed to support the investigations initiated, and also to contribute to the overall security in the city.

The second operation has been deployed in the Sibut-Grimari-Kouango triangle and aims to end the illegal activities of a criminal group, to strengthen the protection of civilians and to ensure freedom of movement along the main roads. 

Despite the additional challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic remains committed to fully execute its mandate.

**COVID-19 — Kazakhstan

And a few items from our country offices as they continue to mobilize in the fight against the pandemic:

From Kazakhstan, where there are 6,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the UN team, led by the Resident Coordinator, Norimasa Shimomura, has been supporting the Government’s emergency health, risk communications and the socioeconomic response. 

WHO is training health-care workers on infection prevention and control, case management, and laboratories.  It has also provided personal protective equipment, hygiene kits and test kits. 

The UN team has surveyed 12,000 people as part of an assessment of the socioeconomic dimension of the pandemic. 

As you’ll recall, the Secretary-General recently launched a policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on mental health, and the UN team in Kazakhstan is spotlighting the importance of mental health in all its communications campaigns and webinars for health-care workers, education facilities, and civil servants. 

For example, the number of people using the special national website on mental health support, which was developed jointly with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), has increased by 40 per cent.  Also, UN staff members have donated essential COVID-19 supplies, including food and hygiene kits, for more than 80 families in several regions of Kazakhstan. 

**COVID-19 — Somalia

And in Somalia, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that the COVID-19 is affecting lives and livelihoods amid other complex humanitarian crises. 

As of today, 1,421 cases of the virus have been confirmed in Somalia with 56 deaths. 

Somalis are also dealing with floods and the worst Desert Locust upsurge in 25 years, alongside protracted conflict and significant displacement.  Our humanitarian partners and authorities are scaling up flood responses and have reached at least 182,830 people with humanitarian assistance. 

Funding for humanitarian operations in Somalia remains very low, with the revised 2020 Somalia humanitarian Response Plan less than 17 per cent funded, at $210.8 million out of $1.25 billion. 

**International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia

And in a message marking the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, the Secretary-General said that the increased vulnerability of LBGTI people is one of the many severe impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.  LGBTI people already face bias, attacks and murder simply for who they are or for whom they love.  But they are now experiencing heightened stigma due to the virus and new obstacles in seeking health care. 

The Secretary-General noted that there are also reports that police are misusing COVID-19 directives to target LGBTI individuals and organizations.  He said that, as the pandemic unfolds, the United Nations will continue to highlight these and other injustices, as well as the need for everyone to be protected and included in the response to the crisis.

**COVID-19 — Museums

And today marks International Museum Day.  According to friends at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the International Council of Museums, nearly 90 per cent of them, or more than 85,000 institutions, have closed their doors for varying lengths of time during the crisis. 

Nearly 13 per cent of museums around the world may never reopen. 

In a tweet, the Secretary-General said that museums may be temporarily closed, but they remain a source of knowledge and discovery for many — particularly through virtual tours.  He also thanked museum workers for their valuable contribution. 

**COVID-19 — Hunger

And the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is seeking $350 million to scale up hunger-fighting and livelihood-boosting activities where COVID-19's impact on the food crisis could be devastating. 

FAO's new funding request is about three times more than in late March, as COVID-19's staggering socioeconomic impacts become more evident. 

According to FAO, even before the pandemic, some 135 million people were experiencing crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity. 

FAO's humanitarian response to COVID-19 is part of the Global COVID-19 Humanitarian Response Plan. 

**Donald Paneth

And lastly, I just want to say that we have been saddened to learn that long-time UN correspondent Donald Paneth passed way last month.  We send our condolences to his family. 

We will all remember him for his amazing memory of events that unfolded at the United Nations over the last 75 years — from the opening of the United Nations in New York 1945, which he covered for The New York Times, to the Security Council votes before the Iraq war which he reported for the Indypendent, a progressive newspaper in New York.

Donald was a passionate defender of the potential of the United Nations.  We last saw him not too long ago in our offices, in his trademark seersucker suit.  We had a passionate conversation about the situation in Syria and the Security Council’s work.

Talking to Donald always helped to remind us of what the United Nations can be when we do our best.  We will try to remember his idealism as we face the challenges that still lie ahead. 

Donald Paneth was 93. 

And with that, I will stop here and try to take your questions.  And Stephanie [Tremblay] is in the room. 

We will start with — [inaudible]

Engineer: Ladies and gentlemen, please stand by.  Stéphane Dujarric got disconnected.  He has to dial back in. 

**Questions and Answers

Spokesman:  All right.  Here you go.  I can see Celia, which is always a good sign.  All right.  Betul, let's go back to you.  Or Edie?  Edie Lederer?

Correspondent:  I'm here. 

Spokesman:  Excellent!  We're back. 

Question:  Good.  Thank you, Steph, and on behalf of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), our deepest condolences to Don's family.  He certainly left an incredible legacy at the United Nations in his reporting.

I had a question about Libya because of this bombing over the weekend at a centre for the displaced, and my question is what the UN might be doing and can you update us on the progress in trying to find a new SRSG (Special Representative of the Secretary-General) for Libya?

And, also, any chance that we might get to talk to the Secretary‑General anytime soon?  There's a lot happened since we talked to him last.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Indeed.  We continue to…  well, we'll see when we can schedule something with the SG, not very likely this week, but we could try for the following week, but we'll keep you posted.

Obviously, we're very much aware of the continuing violence that we've seen in Libya, which continues to be scandalous, frankly.  It is the most vulnerable that continue to suffer — civilians, refugees, migrants; health‑care facilities are attacked; civilian infrastructure is attacked.  Our message to all the parties continues to be the same, which is stop the violence, put the guns down, and resume the political process.

As far as the search for a new SRSG, it is very much in progress.  You know the system as much as I do.  As soon as we have something to confirm, we will.  I can tell you it is very much ongoing.

Betul?

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Thank you very much.  I've got two questions.  Firstly, what does the Secretary‑General think of Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Assembly?  It has, obviously, been very successful in preventing the spread of coronavirus.

And, secondly, the Secretary‑General has been calling for a global ceasefire since the beginning of the pandemic, endorsed by the Security Council, but the Security Council is paralyzed once again due to a disagreement over the World Health Organization.  I just wanted to know if the Secretary‑General thinks that…  whether the World Health Organization should be mentioned in a Security Council resolution or not.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Look, it's not the Secretary‑General's business to tell Council members what should be or not be in a resolution.  We…  of course, we would very much appreciate strong backing for the Secretary‑General's global ceasefire call from the Security Council, the institution within the United Nations charged with peace and security.  I think a strong message from them would go a long way.  We understand the discussions are ongoing.  We wait to see the results.

On the issue of Taiwan, I think the World Health Organization is an independent agency.  It is up for those member States to decide; and for the Secretariat, we abide and come under the relevant General Assembly resolutions on China.

Let's go to Majeed.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have a question on Syria, on the issue of a lack of…  severe lack of humanitarian and medical aid to north‑east Syria.  As you probably know, the World Health Organization and other UN humanitarian agencies are working directly with the [Bashar al-]Assad regime and the opposition groups.  For example, last month, they delivered more than a thousand of COVID‑19 test kits to Syrian Government and the opposition groups. 

But those agencies, those UN agencies do not work with local authorities in north‑east Syria.  My question is…  and they don't…  and they do work with Al‑Qaeda‑linked groups in Idlib, for example, other opposition groups. 

My question is, what is the logic behind this?  Why the UN agencies, such as WHO, work with even Al‑Qaeda‑linked groups but do not work with local authorities that are…  they were heavily involved in fighting terrorism and ISIS?

Spokesman:  You know, I'm not going to go into the…  I'm not equipped to go into the granularity of this issue.  What I can tell you is that, obviously, we work with the Government of Syria, as we work with every Member State and as we do in places where there is conflict, where the State authority may not be fully extended, and that’s whether in Syria or different countries.  We work with de facto authorities, de facto groups, that may be in control to get the humanitarian aid in.

Question:  But understanding…  sorry.

Spokesman:  We work with whomever we need to work to get the humanitarian aid in, based on the well‑known humanitarian princ…  guiding principles of the Organization.

Question:  Just to follow up on that.  The question is, you do not work with the authorities, the de facto authorities, in north‑east Syria while you do that.  You're right.

Spokesman:  I can't get into any more detail.  What I can tell you is that we work with whomever we need to get…  work with within the parameters of the UN's humanitarian principles to get the aid to those who need it

Celia?

Correspondent:  Thanks, Steph.  Do you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, perfectly.

Question:  Yep.  Okay.  Thank you.  Steph, the Venezuela issue has been brought up by Samuel Moncada to the Security Council.  He sent a letter of 14 pages last week to the Security Council with a copy to the Secretary‑General.  Today, the representative for Juan Guaidó for international affairs sent another letter.  Is any reaction from the Office of the Secretary‑General of these letters coming to his office and if this could jeopardize any humanitarian aid that is being agreed to be able to enter the country?

Spokesman:  Look, I haven't seen letters.  What we very…  we very much hope that nothing jeopardizes our humanitarian efforts.  People who need to get help should get help, and that's what our focus continues to be.  We do understand that there may be some discussions within the Security Council on Venezuela, and we will, as always, answer any requests we get from the Council presidency.

Okay.  Let's see.  Hold on.  Somebody else had a question.  Let me go back…  Abdelhamid.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Today, in the World Health Assembly, there's about 120 countries calling for an investigation of how the pandemic started.  What are the thoughts of the Secretary‑General?  Does he agree that there must be some kind of investigation, how the pandemic started?  That is my first question.

Spokesman:  I would refer you to read his remarks in which he said…  he expressed exactly his opinion, which has been the same now for a few weeks, that we will need, at some point, to do a look‑back to examine the role of institutions, of Member States and so forth and how the pandemic is.  But don't use my paraphrase.  Read what he said today, and I think that will answer your question exactly.

Question:  Thank you.  My second…  my second question, yesterday in a panel discussion, Mr. [Nickolay] Mladenov spoke at the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.  It's an NGO (non-governmental organization).  And he spoke strongly about the annexation.  I expected you to read what he said in this noon briefing.  Did you read…?  Did you see…?

Spokesman:  I didn't see his remarks, but as soon as we get them, we will put them out.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Your colleagues at Xinhua had a question:  At the World Health Assembly, China has committed $2 billion over two years for COVID‑19 and has proposed working with the UN on a global response depot in China.  Does the Secretary‑General have any comments?

Well, we, obviously, welcome every expression of support, whether in words or in cash, to the World Health Organization and to the critical work it is doing in the fight against the pandemic.

Evelyn, you had a question.

Question:  Yes.  Hope you had a peaceful weekend, Steph.  A couple brief questions.  On the Taiwan question, they were…  they had asked to be an observer, not a member, and do the General Assembly resolutions still apply?

And secondly, on…  yeah.  On Brazil…

Spokesman:  On your first question, that's a question for the World Health Assembly.  They have their own rules and regulations.  I'm not qualified to answer that question.

Question:  Okay.  Right.  On the second one, on Friday, you spoke about Brazil, and I'm wondering how the UN staff there could do anything when the President of the country is undermining any meaningful steps to combat the virus, and the police are shooting people at random…

Spokesman:  I think we gave a pretty detailed readout of what the country team is able to do.  Obviously, as in any country, we work with the Government, so what they are able to do, they would do in partnership with the Government of Brazil, but I don't have any other update besides that.

Question:  But the Government's divided, health ministers quit and so forth.  I just…

Spokesman:  I understand the situation.  We, obviously, are highlighting what we are able to do.

Edie, you had another question.

Question:  Yes, I did.  Thank you, Steph.  I wondered…  I think I had asked last week if we could get some kind of an update on the Secretary‑General's ceasefire call, exactly how many…  we know, perhaps, the number of responses, but what exactly has happened as a result?

Spokesman:  Sorry.  My bad.  I need to follow…  I dropped the ball on that.  Let me follow up on that, and I will help you. 

Dulcie says, “I need an update on both confirmed COVID cases among UN personnel and deaths, please.”

All right, Dulcie.  What I can tell you, as of Sunday evening, 17 May, we had reported to us 520 cases globally.  In the Americas, 147 cases.  That is…  includes 78 cases in New York.  Of those, 30…  78 cases in New York. 

And in terms of fatalities, I think that number is at seven, sadly, one at FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), one at UNI…  a UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) dependent, one UNICEF staff in Nigeria, one UNOPS (United Nations Office for Project Services) consultant here in New York, one WHO staffer, one staffer from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and one from the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals that we spoke about.  Hopefully, Dulcie, that answers your question.

Stephanie, any more questions?

Okay.  No more.

Thank you, all, very much.  We were coming to you today from a UN studio, but we will be back at our undisclosed location tomorrow. 

And thank you, Edie, for those kind words about Don. 

Thank you, and we'll see you tomorrow.  Signing off.

For information media. Not an official record.