19 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.

Good afternoon, and I apologize for the delay, but we had a lot of stuff coming at the last minute.  As a reminder, mute your mics and if you want to ask a question, show video and audio so I can see you. 

**Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

I will start off with a statement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam:

The Secretary-General continues to follow closely developments related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).  He notes the good progress in the negotiations between the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Republic of Sudan thus far and he encourages the three parties to persevere with efforts to peacefully resolve any remaining differences and to achieve a mutually beneficial agreement.

The Secretary-General underscores the importance of the 2015 Declaration of Principles on the dam, which emphasizes cooperation based on common understanding, mutual benefit, good faith, win-win, and the principles of international law.

The Secretary-General encourages progress towards an amicable agreement in accordance with the spirit of these Principles.

**United Nations General Assembly

And another issue I’ve been getting a lot of questions this morning, about a letter from the Secretary-General:  I can confirm to you that the Secretary-General has indeed written a letter to the President of the General Assembly about the forthcoming General Assembly session.  In the letter, he presents options for Member States to consider in order to ensure the holding of the general debate in September.

The decision on how to hold the debate lies with Member States.  And the Secretariat will, of course, support whatever decision is taken by them.

**Africa Policy Brief

This week, the Secretary-General is looking at the impact of COVID-19 on the African continent.

At a minute after midnight tonight, so on Wednesday morning, he will launch a policy brief that looks at areas of concerns, highlights the strengths of the African response and presents a series of recommendations. 

We will share with you copies of the embargoed report, as well as the text of the video message that goes along with the report.

**Africa Dialogue Series

And on a related note, this year’s Africa Dialogue Series will begin tomorrow under the theme “COVID-19 and Silencing the Guns in Africa: Challenges and opportunities”. 

The Secretary-General will speak at this virtual event, which is being hosted by the Office of the Special Adviser on Africa, in collaboration with the African Union and other partners from the UN system.  You should be able to watch the event on the webcast and we will also release the Secretary-General’s remarks to you under embargo.

**Economic and Social Council

And this morning, the Secretary-General spoke at the virtual meeting of the Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSOC) annual operational activities segment. 

In his remarks, he said that COVID-19 has exposed our world’s fragilities, with the most vulnerable suffering the most.  The Secretary-General added that the task of eradicating poverty and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has never been more challenging, more urgent and more necessary.  He went on to tell members of the Council that we now have a triple imperative:  first, to respond urgently to help countries stem the impact of the pandemic and suppress the transmission of the virus.  Second, to help Governments and their people safeguard development gains, mitigate the pandemic’s socioeconomic impacts, and protect lives in emergency settings.  And third, to work with partners to ensure that the national, regional and global recovery efforts follow the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. 

His full remarks have been shared with you and are already posted online. 


The acting Special Representative for Libya, Stephanie Williams, briefed the Security Council by video this morning on the situation in the country.  She made clear that there has been no lull in fighting in Libya.  Instead, she reported, fighting has escalated with an unprecedented increase in indirect fire in urban areas and a growing tide of suffering for civilians.

Ms. Williams said that millions of Libyans — most notably the 2 million residents of Tripoli — are experiencing a most abnormal and terrifying [existence], under almost constant bombardment, frequent water and electricity cuts.  All that compounded by restrictions of movement as a result of preventive measures around the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said that the pandemic compounds existing insecurity in addition to exacerbating longstanding vulnerabilities.  The UN system is hard at work, she said, to assist national authorities, including through the provision of supplies, equipment, and training.  There are now five operational labs in the country; that’s up from two, but many more are needed, including the qualified personnel to operate them. 

The acting Special Representative warned the Council that from what we are witnessing in terms of the massive influx of weaponry, equipment and mercenaries to the two sides, the only conclusion that we can draw is that this war will intensify, broaden and deepen with devastating consequences for the Libyan people.

In the afternoon, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, will brief the Security Council on the situation in Syria.

**Peacekeeping Missions

And an update from our peacekeeping missions, which continue to support Governments and local communities responding to COVID-19:

The UN Mission in Abyei, UNISFA, together with women’s groups, carried out a COVID-19 awareness raising campaign aimed at promoting the roles and voices of women leaders in their communities.  In support of the Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire, the Abyei Women Association, which represents women in the Ngok Dinka community, has called on all armed elements in Abyei to cease fire and focus its efforts on fighting the virus.  The UN Mission will also distribute solar-powered radios, focusing on supplying them to households headed by women, to increase access to information. 

Meanwhile, the joint UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) is engaging with local authorities and community leaders, including leaders of nomadic and farming groups.  It has also distributed hygiene materials in camps for internally displaced people in Zalingei to help them fight the pandemic. 

**WHO Report

And just to flag — a report released today by the World Health Organization (WHO) on the health behaviours of 11 to 15-year-olds in Europe shows that adolescent mental health well-being declined in many countries between 2014 and 2018.

The study compiles extensive data on the physical health, social relationships, and mental health of schoolchildren from 45 countries.  The report shows that one in four adolescents reports feeling nervous, irritable or having difficulties going to sleep at least once per week. 

Also, one in ten adolescents report having been cyberbullied at least once in the past two months.  WHO said that the report provides a baseline against which future studies can measure the impact of the pandemic on young people’s lives. 

**Cabo Verde

And just to go back to our field work.  In terms of our UN country teams, I wanted to flag that in Cabo Verde, where there are more than 300 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the Resident Coordinator, Ana Patricia Graça, and the Government are leading a response and recovery coordination platform.  That effort brings together Government Ministries, civil society organizations, the private sector and international partners. 

As part of their call for solidarity, the UN staff in Cabo Verde have donated part of their salaries to support the Government’s efforts to address the impacts of the virus pandemic on the local population. 

And WHO there is also providing medical equipment and technical assistance to health workers, hospitals, and labs.  UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) are providing tests and are ensuring the continuity of maternal and neonatal health services. 

The UN team is also boosting job creation, with a special focus on youth and women.  UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and UN-Habitat are also supporting local authorities to create temporary jobs in areas including revamping markets, streets and public works. 

The UN team is also boosting innovation and technology solutions through UNDP’s Accelerator Labs, encouraging start-ups and crowdfunding platforms. 


And an update from Cameroon, where we, along with our humanitarian partners, are providing health, water and sanitation, hygiene support, including mobile clinics, disease screening and virus sensitization to internally displaced people in the north-west and south-west regions of the country.  The crisis in these two regions is now entering its fourth year and has led to the displacement of over 450,000 people.

To contain the spread of the virus, over 6,300 schools and 4,200 community learning centres have been closed since March in the north-west and the south-west.  Government and humanitarian partners are providing distance learning to cover half of the children impacted by school closures through radio, TV and printed materials.


Turning to Bangladesh, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that the UN and the Government are making preparations as Super Cyclone Storm Amphan is set to make landfall tomorrow.  More than 14 million people may be impacted by the cyclone in the country. 

The Humanitarian Coordination Task Team, co-led by the UN and the Government of Bangladesh, is working on preparedness and response activities. 

The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society has also activated its Early Actions protocols for cyclones.

It is not predicted that the cyclone will make landfall near Cox’s Bazar, but alert mechanisms are in effect and the UN is working closely with the Government on the situation there. 


Our colleagues at the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) warned today that the rising numbers of civilian casualties in Afghanistan underscore the urgent need for parties to halt the fighting and to re-focus on starting intra-Afghan peace negotiations.

UNAMA’s latest preliminary figures indicate a trend of escalating civilian casualties in April from operations conducted by both the Taliban and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).  There is also grave concern about levels of violence in the first half of May.  Since April, in addition to the unclaimed attack on a hospital in Kabul last week, UNAMA has documented the abduction of 15 health-care workers by the Taliban as well as a threat to health-care workers and confiscation of medical supplies by the security forces. 

UNAMA emphasized that medical personnel and facilities have special protection from attack.  Any incident affecting people, places and supplies necessary for health-care provision can have serious and wide-ranging consequences, particularly during this pandemic. 

**UN Global Compact

And on a different register, the UN Global Compact, along with the Science Based Targets initiative and the We Mean Business coalition, today released a statement in which more than 150 global corporations urge world leaders to work on a net-zero recovery from COVID-19.  The 155 companies, which have a combined market capitalization of over $2.4 trillion dollars and represent over 5 million employees, are calling for policies that will build resilience against future shocks by supporting efforts to hold global temperature rise to within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, in line with reaching net-zero emissions well before 2050.

The Secretary-General welcomed the statement and said that “many companies are showing us that it is indeed possible and profitable to adopt sustainable, emission-reducing plans even during difficult times like this”.  The statement comes as Governments around the world are preparing stimulus packages to help economies recover from the impacts of the pandemic, and as they prepare to submit enhanced national climate plans under the Paris Agreement. 

You can find the full list of the companies who signed on the statement on the Global Compact’s website. 

**Latin America

And the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) today warned that many displaced indigenous communities in Latin America are now dangerously exposed to and at risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus. 

With the virus hitting the Amazon region hard and Brazil emerging as an epicentre of the pandemic, UNHCR is worried that many indigenous groups may struggle without adequate health and sanitation conditions. 

A majority of them live in isolated or remote areas, where they lack access to health care, clean water and soap.  Others live in cramped dwellings or in informal urban settlements without access to protective equipment. 

In Brazil, UNHCR is supporting efforts to ensure adequate shelter for indigenous Warao refugees from Venezuela.  The agency is also facilitating relocation and providing mosquito nets, hygiene kits, solar lamps as well as transportation.  UNHCR is also continuing hygiene promotion sessions, delivered in the Warao and Eñepá languages, to indigenous refugees. 

In Colombia, UNHCR and partners are supporting food distributions and providing hygiene kits for those most vulnerable among the Yukpa and Wayuu populations.  Health brigades have also been organized as well as information and hygiene promotion campaigns tailored for indigenous communities. 

And ahead of an international donor conference for Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Latin America, hosted by the European Union and Spain next Tuesday, UNHCR is calling on countries to pledge support for the Regional Response Plan.  That plan is currently only 4 per cent funded. 

**El Salvador

I’ve been asked about the situation in El Salvador and I can tell you that since the beginning of the pandemic, the Secretary-General has urged Governments to implement emergency measures that are legal, proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory, and have a specific focus and duration; and also to take the least intrusive approach possible to protect public health.  Politicizing the work of UN technical agencies would only undermine national efforts to tackle the pandemic.

The Secretary-General urges all political stakeholders to act responsibly, with full respect for human rights, democratic institutions and the rule of law.  The UN stands ready to support Salvadorans in their efforts to build a peaceful, democratic and prosperous country, as they have done since the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992. 

That's enough for me.  Let's go and take your questions in case there are any. 

Is Florencia [Soto Nino] there?  Let's see. 

**Questions and Answers

Benny.  Mr. Avni.

Question:  Following up on… actually, Pamela left a note there about the letter President [Donald] Trump sent this morning to the WHO, specifically about the criticism of the WHO kowtowing to China and the pointed criticism of the… of Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus] in the letter and, of course, the threat of, within 30 days, withdrawing all funds to WHO.

Spokesman:  Listen, we've seen the letter as reported in the press.  I can tell you that our… all of the answers to the questions you've raised are in the remarks the Secretary‑General delivered yesterday to the World Health Assembly, and I really have nothing to add to that.

Go ahead.  Benny, for some reason, I can't hear you, which is a first.  Benny, I can't hear you.  Okay.  All right.  Listen, I'll come back to you when you regain your voice, which I have no doubt you will.

Okay.  Pamela asked a question about Tedros, which I felt I've answered.

Iftikhar:  The UN Adviser on Genocide Prevention, Adama Dieng, issued a statement today voicing concern over India's 2019 discriminatory Citizenship Act and the continuing hate speech against Indian minorities, specifically… especially Muslims.  Does the Secretary‑General take… plan to take this matter with the Indian leadership?

No, we assume that the… Mr.  Dieng has a very important voice within the UN system on these issues, and I have no doubt that he will convey that statement to the Indian authorities. 

Benny, do you want to see if you found your voice again?

Correspondent:  Let's see.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes.  Now I can see you.

Question:  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  I can hear you, most important.

Question:  Okay.  So… so… yeah, better hear me than see me.  So, specifically about the question of withdrawing funds, I mean, we have a new situation that was, like, suspending… suspension of funds, and now there's a threat, within 30 days, of withdrawing all funds from WHO.  No answer on that?

Spokesman:  Look, again, I think the Secretary‑General's views on WHO, on a look‑back, all of that is in his remarks he delivered yesterday.


Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Last Saturday, the Non‑Aligned Movement issued a strong statement about the prospect of annexation of Palestinian land.  On Sunday, the Israeli Government was formed, and [Benjamin] Netanyahu gave a speech, and he said, we are moving ahead with the annexation and extending Israeli sovereignty over the Palestinian land.  The only one who didn't speak up against the annexation is the Secretary‑General.  Can you give me explanation, please?

Spokesman:  Again, I think we continue on our parallel path.  I think the Secretary‑General, his representative, Mr. [Nickolay] Mladenov, has also… has spoken out very clearly and warned against annexation, warned against any unilateral moves that would jeopardize the two‑State solution.


Question:  Yes.  Thank you so much.  I'm circling back to Mr. Trump's letter again.  So, when you point to the remarks of the Secretary‑General yesterday's, I… yesterday, I frankly don't understand why, because that can't be the answer to a letter which was published at midnight, I think.  Also, did you receive the letter or not?

Spokesman:  Well, the letter was not addressed to the Secretary‑General.  Right?  I mean, it was posted on Twitter.  It was not addressed to the Secretary‑General.  It was addressed to the Director‑General of WHO.  So, you would have to ask them how they will officially answer the letter. 

The issues raised by the President of the United States in his letter, I think, if… you're asking me for my… for our reaction to it, and I can tell you that all of the issues raised are… for us, are answered in the Secretary‑General's own statement yesterday and his previous statements on WHO. 


Question:  Hi there, Steph.  Thanks.  Just a quick question on Cabo Verde.  Is it usual for UN staff to donate their salaries?  Can… any more information on that?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  No.  I mean, we can get you a bit more detail.  It's not usual, but we've seen… I mean, it's a first that we flagged it within this context of a country team, but we've had… we have staff in New York who have donated goods and services to the pandemic, whether it's to deliver food.  So, I think it's not uncommon for UN staff to either volunteer or to give back to the communities where they work, but we can get you… Eri [Kaneko] in my office can give you a bit more… help you get a bit more information on Cabo Verde.

[The Spokesman later added:  Half of the UN country team members, around 50 staff from UN entities and the Resident Coordinator’s office, made donations to the Government’s COVID-19 efforts.  This totaled slightly less than $5,000 and directly helped 46 families in need.  The Prime Minister was very moved by the gesture and thanked the UN publicly.]

Okay.  Mario?

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Thank you.  Just a follow‑up on the… on your statement on El Salvador.  Is the SG concerned about any particular measure that the Government has taken?  And does he plan any sort of use of the UN mechanisms some NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have asked him to do?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  You know, for… I mean, a lot of this will be taken up by the country team.  There have been some statements made by different entities within the Government that have been of concern to us, and that's why we're raising these issues, notably… so, I think the… that's what I have for you on that at this point.

Abdelhamid, I wanted to add that Mr. Mladenov is scheduled to brief the Council tomorrow, so I'm sure you'll hear back a bit more on that, as well. 

Okay.  And sorry…  Toby, I think just on UN staff donating, also, I wanted to…  I misspoke in saying this was the first time we flagged it from a country team.  In fact, if I had listened to what I had said myself yesterday, I would have heard myself say that UN staff members in Kazakhstan have also donated essential COVID supplies, include food and hygiene kits to a number of families in different regions of Kazakhstan.

Gloria had a question about preparations.  Are refugees from Myanmar making Bangladesh especially vulnerable?  With all the religious convocations going on, are religious leaders pressuring the Buddhist community?

I'm not aware.  What I can tell you is that we're making…  the country team, the humanitarian team that we have on the ground in Cox's Bazar is working hard to do some preventive measures to ensure that the virus does not spread within the refugee community and, of course, with the host communities in Bangladesh.

All right.  Any other questions, Florencia?

No.  All right.  Thank you, all, and we'll see you tomorrow.

For information media. Not an official record.