21 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.

[The briefing began with an announcement by Melissa Fleming, the Under‑Secretary-General for Global Communications, on the launch of the “Verified” initiative to combat the growing scourge of COVID-19 misinformation.]

Back to our regular programming.  And just as a reminder, we’ll have the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Senior Locust Forecasting Officer, Keith Cressman, who will be joining us right after the briefing.

**Secretary-General — Asia-Pacific

Today, the seventy-sixth session of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) was held and obviously in a virtual setting.  In a video message sent to the gathering, the Secretary-General noted that Governments and leaders are grappling with a wide range of challenges that risk recent progress in the Asia-Pacific region and around the world.  He said that, while many countries in the region are charting a solid course towards COVID-19 solutions, millions in the region remain highly vulnerable and at risk.  The Secretary-General stressed he is strongly convinced that we have an opportunity to build back better on the foundations of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  He said that means forging common solutions to the climate crisis, economic and social inequalities, and [new] forms of violence, as well as rapid changes in technology and demography.  You can find his message online.

**Deputy Secretary-General — Labour

This morning, the Deputy Secretary-General and the head of the International Labour Organization (ILO), Guy Ryder, jointly held a virtual conference with the UN’s resident coordinators who are leading our response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 162 countries and territories.  Ms. [Amina] Mohammed said that we previously thought we had 10 years to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the urgency of this cause.  For his part, the ILO Director-General said that the world cannot accept a “new normal” with more inequality and more people left behind.  UN teams around the world are working closely with Governments, civil society organizations and the private sector to roll out our framework for the immediate socioeconomic response and recovery.  The UN is spotlighting social protection schemes, such as cash transfers, that can help prevent millions of people, especially women and children, from sliding into poverty.

**Financing for Development

Tomorrow, the Deputy-Secretary-General will be available to brief you, in an embargoed briefing, on the high-level event on Financing for Development in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond.  That is scheduled to take place on 28 May, next Thursday.  The event is being convened by the Secretary-General, along with the Prime Ministers of Canada and Jamaica, and will aim to set a definite pathway to concrete and effective solutions on critical sustainable development finance issues that threaten to adversely impact billions of people over the next two months.  We will be in touch with you regarding the exact time of that briefing.

**Deputy Secretary-General — Diversity

Staying on with the Deputy Secretary-General, to mark the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, the BBC is hosting, right now, a Diversity and Inclusion Conversation with the UN on LinkedIn.  The BBC’s Director General, Tony Hall and the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, are leading an hour-long discussion with creative experts on how to ensure diversity and inclusion is at the heart of plans to recover better from the COVID-19 pandemic.  The conversation is feeding into the values of the 17 SDGs adopted by world leaders.  While the discussion's main focus is the creative industry, the intention is for themes and learning to be applicable across multiple industries.

In her remarks, the Deputy Secretary-General said that a true diversity of voices and ideas produces better communities and workforces, allowing us to identify, prevent and respond to vulnerabilities, as we accelerate our vision into the future.  She added that we need all voices to be heard, especially our youth.  The event is being broadcast to the combined audiences of the BBC and the UN’s millions of LinkedIn followers, as well as to LinkedIn members who are in the creative industry.  It is also on the UN WebTV platform.

**Protection of Civilians Report

The annual report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict has been released.  Covering the year 2019, the report documents the death and injuries of tens of thousands of civilians; the displacement of millions; as well as widespread reports of sexual violence.  Children were also forced to take part in fighting, according to the report.  It also details how the work of humanitarian organizations was hampered by violence and bureaucracy, while attacks against hospitals and health clinics continued.  As COVID-19 spreads around the world, the virus could further devastate conflict-affected States.  The report is scheduled for a discussion in the Security Council next week.

**Economic and Social Council

As part of the Operational Activities Segment of the Economic and Social Council, which, as you know, is under way, Member States are having a dialogue with UN Resident Coordinators and members of UN country teams in six countries:  Armenia, China, Haiti, Seychelles, Uruguay and Yemen.  Our colleagues working in these countries are responding to questions from Member States on changes on the ground following the repositioning of the UN development system, which started early last year.  The Deputy Secretary-General spoke at the start of the session and noted that the Resident Coordinators and UN Country Team members, together, are rising to the challenge to ensure more responsive and effective support to the 2030 Agenda.  Today’s dialogue centres around the UN’s successes and challenges of UN country teams, as well as how they are responding to the pandemic in the first so-called stress test for how effective the changes on the ground are following the reforms.

**Central African Republic

Some updates from the field:  our colleagues in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) continue to support the Government in its efforts to secure the city of Ndélé.  The ultimate goal is to free the city of weapons.  On Tuesday, at the request of the Central African Republic’s Special Criminal Court, peacekeepers arrested nine armed elements.  The arrests were parts of investigations conducted by the Government and MINUSCA into violence that has affected the country’s north‑eastern region since early March.  Fifty-six individuals, including 39 civilians, have died as a result of this wave of violence.  As we mentioned a few days ago, MINUSCA has launched a military operation in Ndélé aimed at protecting civilians and creating security conditions for the humanitarian activities, as well as the restoration of State authority, including justice.

In a different part of the country, MINUSCA continues to closely monitor developments in Obo in Haut-Mbomou Prefecture.  Yesterday, six members of an armed group — the Unité pour la paix en Centrafrique, or UPC — and three other suspects were arrested by peacekeepers as they attempted to attack the town.  Weapons were also confiscated.  Finally, the peacekeeping mission’s support to support local authorities in the fight against COVID-19 is ongoing.  They are conducting training and awareness-raising workshops aimed at influential and religious women leaders on the need to observe preventive measures, social distancing and overcrowd avoidance.


In Syria today, the UN resident coordinator and humanitarian coordinator, Imran Riza, announced the release of $23 million by the Syria Humanitarian Fund to provide rapid, life-saving support to communities across Syria to fight the pandemic.  The funds will prioritize interventions in health, water and sanitation, protection and logistics support, including early investments in reinforcing preparedness, such as infection prevention and control, and strengthening testing and tracing capacity.  This contribution from the Syria Humanitarian Fund will go directly towards urgent and decisive action that will help curb transmission of the virus, said Imran Riza.  It will also protect front‑line health workers and support vulnerable communities who can ill-afford the destructive impacts of the pandemic.


Turning to Yemen, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that COVID-19 is making the humanitarian crisis in the country much worse, which was already the world’s largest.  Epidemiologists estimate that the virus could spread faster, more widely and with deadlier consequences in Yemen than in many other countries.  Although official figures stand at 184 cases and 30 deaths today, actual incidence is almost certainly much higher.  Tests remain in short supply.  Aid agencies are operating on the basis that community transmission is taking place across the country.  We, along with our partners, are focusing on effective case management and protecting the public health system, and on scaling up awareness and risk communication interventions.  An estimated 16 million people in the first half of May were reached with awareness-raising activities.


United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) reports to us that they are continuing to support the COVID-19 response in the mission area.  Recently, they handed over a public water purification plant to the local community in Abbasiyah in south-west Lebanon.  UNIFIL also donated computer equipment and clothing in social development centres to benefit communities in four south-eastern Lebanese villages.


And an update on Cyclone Amphan, which recently made landfall between India and Bangladesh:  Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that the storm has damaged houses and crops [in Bangladesh].  Power has been cut off to cities and towns, many of which are working to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.  The cyclone has been downgraded to a tropical depression, but is still expected to bring heavy to moderate rain over the next 24 hours.  It is believed that around 10 million people in Bangladesh are impacted by the cyclone, with half a million families potentially having lost their homes.  The Government of Bangladesh has evacuated nearly 2 million people.  There are more than 12,000 cyclone shelters, which have supplies, such as masks and sanitizers, to combat COVID-19.  Humanitarian partners and authorities will rapidly assess the damage.  In Cox’s Bazar, early reports indicate minimal damage in refugee camps, but aid agencies are looking into the situation there.

**Migrants — Europe

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are calling on Malta and other European States to disembark some 160 rescued migrants and refugees who remain at sea on board two Captain Morgan vessels.  The UN agencies are also deeply concerned about reports that States have been ignoring or delaying responses to distress calls, especially amid a sharp decrease in State-led and non-governmental organization search-and-rescue capacity.

**Displaced People — COVID-19

Earlier today, on a related note, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNHCR signed an agreement to strengthen public health services for the millions of forcibly displaced people around the world.  A key objective this year will be to support the ongoing efforts to protect some 70 million displaced people from COVID-19.

**World Health Organization — Smithsonian Guide for Youth

The World Health Organization, the Smithsonian Science Education Center and 140 national academies of science, engineering and medicine have developed a guide to help youth between the ages of 8 and 17 to better understand COVID-19.  The new guide is called “COVID-19!  How can I protect myself and others?”, and asks questions that explore the impact of the pandemic, as well as how to practice hand and respiratory hygiene and physical distancing.  All of the tasks in the guide have been designed to be completed at home.  The new guide is free and will be available online in more than 15 languages.


Just to flag that, yesterday afternoon, the Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, briefed Security Council members on the situation in Venezuela.  She warned that there is a heightened concern regarding the stand-off and the absence of any serious negotiations between the main political parties in Venezuela, especially amid the potentially far-reaching effects of the current pandemic.  Rosemary DiCarlo called on the main political actors to engage in constructive negotiations to create conditions conducive to the holding of credible, inclusive and participatory elections.  She also added that the UN remains concerned about reports of detention of political leaders and journalists reporting on the pandemic and the politicization of humanitarian aid, as well as threats and intimidation against health workers for expressing, for example, concern about the lack of equipment to fight the pandemic or actually just giving the number of cases.  Finally, she reiterated the Secretary-General’s appeal for the waiving of sanctions that could undermine countries’ capacity to respond to the pandemic.

**International Tea Day

And lastly, today is the first International Tea Day, which is promoting collective action in favour of the sustainable production and consumption of tea and raising awareness of its importance in fighting hunger and poverty.  Tea production and processing constitutes a main source of livelihoods for millions of families in developing countries and is the main means of subsistence for millions of poor families, many living in least developed countries.  Changes in temperature and rainfall patterns, with more floods and droughts, have already affected yields, tea quality and prices, lowering incomes and threatening rural livelihoods.  Tomorrow, we will be delighted because we will be joined by Reem Abaza, the Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly.  And before we go to our guest to talk about locusts, I'm happy to take some questions.  Let's see who we have.

**Questions and Answers

Dulcie asks:  When is the Secretary‑General's report on Mauritius and Chagos to be released?

My understanding is that report has been submitted to processing to the Department of General Assembly and Conference Management.  It will be up on the website at some point.  I would encourage you to just check the website daily, because once it's submitted for processing, it's hard for us to get an exact date of release, but it has been submitted.  Maria.  Maria?

Okay.  Dulcie asks:  Which website?

I would go to the UN documents website, the UN official [documents site]… UNODS, which is daily updated with every possible document that this august institution produces on daily basis and are all great reads.  Okay.  Maria's mic is not working, but I hear her.  Let's go to James Bays while Maria gets her video and mic working.

Question:  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Let's… let's… let Maria speak.  She's… I can now see her or a virtual image of her.  So, go ahead, Maria.

Question:  Okay.  Thanks.  Hi, everyone.  So, about Venezuela, yeah, the Central Bank of England declined Venezuela to access its gold reserves, which, according to Venezuelan officials, had to be transferred to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in order to fight coronavirus.  So, I wonder if you have any comment on that?  And while there are problems to have access to these gold reserves, what can be done to help Venezuela with coronavirus?

Spokesman:  I don't really have… I had not seen the report.  I don't have a comment on that bilateral issue between the UK and Venezuela.  What I can tell you, more broadly, is that the Secretary… that our position is that we should depoliticize aid as much as possible, that all countries should do whatever they can to help other countries' public health systems, especially those that may be fragile, to deal with the pandemic, because, obviously, we will not be successful in eradicating the virus until every country is successful in doing it.  So, the weakest need our help, and we should put politics aside.  But, as far as the issue of the gold reserve, as I said, I don't have a comment, because I had not seen that.  James Bays?

Question:  I have two questions, Steph, but first, a point of frustration.  I also had a question for Under‑Secretary‑General Fleming and couldn't get on this site despite using three different devices, Windows and Mac.  It's been nearly two months.  I know you're bringing in a new system soon supposedly, but if it doesn't work either, then can you just follow other parts of the UN and use cutting‑edge technology we know works, Zoom or Microsoft Teams?  There are lots of platforms that actually work.  This system is not working, and you've had two months to fix it.  My questions are, first on Yemen, MSF [Medicins sans Frontieres] reports a very worrying situation there between 30 April and 17 May, 173 patients admitted to their treatment centre there, 68 of whom died, and they believe that's just a small proportion of those sick and dying in Aden.  They also say their teams are working around the clock but can't do it alone, and they request the UN does more to help.  Your reaction, please?

Spokesman:  Listen, I… we'll have to look into that specific MSF request.  Obviously, I think, as we've been reporting here almost on a daily basis, UN staff, both in and out of Yemen, have been working to deliver critical programmes to help deal with the humanitarian situation, especially the COVID cases.  It's clear to us that number of cases are probably under‑reported given the state of affairs in Yemen.  And this… again, this should serve as yet another reminder why we need to see a stepped‑up political process and acceptance of that process by the parties.  But I will look into the specific MSF situation.

Question:  My second question is on Libya.  Those who speak to… those who speak for General [Khalifa] Haftar seem to be threatening a campaign of aerial bombardment on Tripoli.  What is the UN's response to that?

Spokesman:  The UN's response is very clear.  Stop the bombing.  Stop the fighting.  The civilians of Libya, especially those in and around Tripoli, have suffered tremendously, especially in the last months as this campaign has grown in volume.  I think Stephanie Williams was very clear yesterday in her briefing to the Council on that.  Nothing will… no military solution, no more bombs, no more drones will help bring Libya closer to peace.  And as you said, we are testing the WebEx Cisco system tomorrow, so, hopefully, that will work better.

I know Pam Falk wanted to ask a question, and Karina Muslimova, I think, had the same question, which is our reaction to the reports of US withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty.

And what I can just tell you is that we reiterate our concern regarding the erosion of the US‑Russia arms-control regime.  I think we can't stress enough that this arms-control regime has provided security benefits for the entire international community by constraining strategic arms competition.  Ending such agreements without anything to replace them could result in destabilizing activities, such as a dangerous new arms race, leading to possible miscalculations.  Yoshita, you had a question?

Correspondent:  Hi, Steph.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yep.

Question:  Yeah.  Hope all is well.  Steph, India's new Permanent Representative, Ambassador Tirumurti, submitted his virtual credentials yesterday.  Are there any remarks from the SG that you can share when he submitted the credentials?  Thanks.

Spokesman:  No, but, obviously, we welcome… I mean, no specific remarks, but we, obviously, very much welcome India's new Permanent Representative to the United Nations.  And I know the Secretary‑General looks forward to working very closely with the new envoy in the years ahead.  Gloria, you had a question.

Question:  Yes.  My question is with the locust plague all over Africa, when I was in Asia, they offered me fried locust, and they were quite delicious.  Is it the same breed of locust that could also be used to feed the people in Africa, as well as some of the people in Asia?

Spokesman:  Well, Gloria, that's a very interesting culinary question, and I'm sure we can ask our guest from the FAO, who's the senior locust specialist, as soon as he comes on about that.  But the problem is that the locusts actually are destroying the crops.  Okay.  Any more…

Question:  Maybe they can be caught and cooked?

Spokesman:  I don't know.  We'll have to… Abdelhamid, did you have a question?  I'm having some…

Correspondent:  Just want to apologize.  I have another engagement, so I don't want to be rude and leave, so I was putting my apology to Florencia [Soto Nino].

Spokesman:  No problem.  Florencia, any more questions?  If not, we will move to our guest, Keith, who I think is only on the phone.  So, we have Keith Cressman, the FAO Senior Locust Forecasting Officer.  Keith, you have the floor, if you could… should open up your mic.

For information media. Not an official record.