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12 June 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.  I want to let you know that next week I will be away from the computer and Farhan [Haq] will be here answering your questions.  I think Eri [Kaneko] will also do it for one day.  OK, so just remember you have to mute all your microphones and then we’ll call you through the chat or any other way. 

**Seafarers

This morning, as you may have seen we issued the following statement on the fate of seafarers, which I want to read into the record:

The Secretary-General is concerned about the growing humanitarian and safety crisis facing seafarers around the world.  As a result of COVID-related travel restrictions, hundreds of thousands of the world’s 2 million seafarers have been stranded at sea for months.  Unable to get off ships, the maximum sea time stipulated in international conventions is being ignored, with some seafarers marooned at sea for 15 months. 

Shipping transports more than 80 per cent of the world’s trade, including vital medical supplies, food and other basic goods that are critical for the pandemic response and recovery.  This ongoing crisis will have a direct consequence on the shipping industry.  The world could not function without the efforts of seafarers yet their contributions go largely unheralded; they deserve far greater support at any time but especially now. 

The Secretary-General calls on all countries to formally designate seafarers and other marine personnel as “key workers” to ensure crew changeovers can safely take place. 

United Nations agencies, including the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), have worked with the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Transport Workers Federation to develop protocols for crew changeovers, taking into account of course full public health concerns.  The Secretary-General calls on all Governments to urgently implement these protocols, allowing stranded seafarers to repatriate and others to join. 

**Central Africa

Back here in the Security Council this morning, the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Central Africa, François Louncény Fall, said the COVID‑19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of citizens, as well as the functioning of States and regional institutions in Africa — in Central Africa, I must add.  The resulting economic crisis disproportionately affects the subregion of Central Africa, where many countries are oil producers.  As Governments are forced to choose between the urgent public health priorities, they risk lacking the resources needed for the smooth functioning of national institutions and the financing of crucial reforms.

Mr. Louncény Fall highlighted the efforts of regional governments and organizations to counter the virus.  But, he added, the persistence of armed conflict in some parts of Central Africa undermines our efforts to respond to challenges posed by the pandemic.  The Special Representative condemned deliberate attacks on civilians, and the destruction of private property and public infrastructure, including hospitals.  His full remarks are online and have been shared with you. 

**Mali

I also wanted to share an update from our UN peacekeepers in Mali who are working with a network of local radio stations in Gao and Ménaka to provide information about the virus.  Some of the radio stations also broadcast a show called “Objectif Santé”, which is produced by Mikado FM — the UN Mission radio station — in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Malian health personnel to help raise awareness about the virus.  The Mission (MINUSMA) is also supporting civil rights groups in Gao, which are undertaking awareness-raising campaigns targeting youth.  This includes a programme that involves the publication of messages from local influential personalities and leaders on social networks and radio.

**Sudan

Meanwhile, the African Union-United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) has urged communities in the state of South Darfur to exercise restraint and maintain calm following an incident in a camp for internally displaced people in which two people were killed and another was injured.  The Mission responded immediately, deploying two formed police units and a military unit in and around the camp to avert any further violence or potential reprisals.  The Mission is working closely with the Government of Sudan’s forces to defuse tensions and restore calm. 

The head of the Mission, Jeremiah Mamabolo, called on all communities involved to exercise self-restraint and seek justice through appropriate judicial processes and refrain from meeting violence with violence.  He said the Mission will continue to collaborate with the IDP (internally displaced persons) leaders, native administration and Government authorities on protecting civilians and engaging with them regarding this matter.

**Libya

Turning to Libya, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) tells us that nearly 24,000 people have fled their homes in the last week following increased insecurity in southern Tripoli, Tarhuna and Sirte.  Most people have fled to eastern Libya.  Most of the newly displaced are sheltering with relatives, friends and other host families.  We, once again, urge all parties to the conflict to respect the rule of law, for civilians to be protected, and for all efforts to be made to de-escalate tensions.

Yesterday, the UN Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) expressed horror at the reports of at least eight mass graves in past days, the majority of them in Tarhuna.  International law requires that the authorities conduct prompt, effective and transparent investigations into all alleged cases of unlawful deaths, the Mission said.

**Sahel

And following up on the humanitarian consequences of violence in the Sahel, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has launched an appeal for $186 million to provide lifesaving protection and assistance to refugees, internally displaced persons, returnees and host communities in the Central Sahel.  As he launched the appeal in Geneva, Filippo Grandi, the High Commissioner for Refugees, highlighted the remarkable generosity of local communities but noted they are at a breaking point, particularly in Burkina Faso, where the number of people internally displaced has more than quadrupled from less than 200,000 a year ago to almost 850,000 at the end of April.  The appeal includes $97 million in initial requirements for 2020, $29 million to implement the COVID-19 prevention and response measures in displacement areas, and an additional $60 million to scale up UNHCR’s emergency response as part of its Sahel Strategy.

**Zimbabwe

Staying in Africa, this time in Zimbabwe, the UN team, led by the Resident Coordinator, Maria Ribeiro, is helping the Government to address the triple threats posed by the virus, the severe drought and the lingering impact of Cyclone Idai last year.  The country has 332 confirmed cases of the virus and four deaths. 

To respond to the pandemic, the UN and our partners have appealed for $800 million to help 5.6 million vulnerable people — or 40 per cent of the population — in the areas of food, health, water and sanitation, education, protection and shelter, among others.  Only about 20 per cent of this appeal has been funded so far. 

For its part, the World Health Organization (WHO) in Zimbabwe is supporting the Government with COVID-19 surveillance and on addressing the declining rates of immunizations.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has shifted more than $4 million from its HIV programme to the COVID-19 response and is supporting human rights monitoring and compliance by law enforcement.  The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and WHO are also supporting this time community-based health services, while UN-Women and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) are working with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to curb gender-based violence. 

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has facilitated the repatriation of nearly 6,000 Zimbabwean migrants from neighbouring countries, including more than 900 returnees in the past week alone.  UNICEF, IOM and WHO are also working in facilities housing quarantined children returning to Zimbabwe. 

Food security being a big issue, WFP (World Food Programme) has helped nearly 1.5 million people with either cash or in-kind food distribution and it has transported personal protective equipment, as well as virus testing kits, thermometers and ventilators donated by the Jack Ma Foundation.  FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), for its part, is also assessing the status of food security in the country.

 

**Syria

Moving to the Middle East, we have a humanitarian update on Syria, where the UN is working to address the critical humanitarian needs of the more than 11 million people in need of assistance across the whole of Syria.  In January to March this year, we along with our partners reached on average 6.2 million people in need each month across Syria — meaning both Government-controlled and non-Government-controlled areas.  This assistance is saving lives, but more has to be done.

We are working to scale up the response across the country, including comprehensive efforts to help contain the spread of COVID-19, both from within Syria, and importantly, through critical important cross-border assistance, which provides an essential lifeline to millions of vulnerable people living in the north-west.  In recent weeks, the worsening economy and extreme volatility of the informal exchange rate in Syria has begun to impact families already struggling to cope with the impact of nine years of crisis.  WFP already sounded the alarm over the rapid increase of food insecurity in the country; 9.3 million people are food insecure — and that’s an increase of 1.4 million in just six months. 

**Yemen

And in Yemen, our humanitarian colleagues there tell us that between 10 April, when the first case of the virus was confirmed in the country, and 11 June, authorities have announced 564 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 130 deaths.  OCHA notes that these numbers are not representative of the true severity of the outbreak, as Yemen’s health system does not have adequate capacity to test all suspected cases.  All indications point to the rapid spread of the virus across Yemen.  The Case Fatality Rate in observed cases is alarmingly high at around 24 per cent — that’s about four times higher than the number worldwide. 

Aid agencies continue to do all they can to scale up the response to the pandemic.  But the agencies do not have the funding required to deliver the scale needed, nor to continue existing programmes much longer. 

As we’ve been saying, more than 30 of the 41 UN-supported programmes in Yemen will close in the coming weeks if additional funds are not secured.  Now, more than ever, the country needs the outside help.  Already, incentive payments for health workers have had to be cut amidst this pandemic. 

And as you’ll recall, on 2 June, at the High-Level Pledging Conference for Yemen, we had 31 international donors announce pledges of a combined $1.35 billion to meet the humanitarian needs.  This is only about half of what was raised last year, despite the situation being worse than ever.  Much of what was pledged at the event has not yet been disbursed.  We urgently call on donors to fulfil all pledges immediately and to consider increasing support.

**World Day against Child Labour

Today is the World Day against Child Labour, which this year focuses on the impact of the pandemic on the issue.  According to a joint International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF brief released today, millions more children risk being pushed into child labour as a result of the pandemic.  This could lead to the first rise in child labour after 20 years of progress.  ILO and UNICEF warn that evidence is gradually mounting that child labour is rising as schools close during the pandemic.  Temporary school closures are currently affecting more than 1 billion learners in over 130 countries.  Even when classes restart, some parents may no longer be able to afford to send their children to school. 

**Verified

I wanted to say that on behalf of the Secretary-General, I want to welcome the cross-regional statement by 132 signatories supporting his COVID-19 communications initiative and Verified.  Misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories not only complicate the global response to COVID-19, they cost lives. 

**Financial Contributions

And finally, not one but two pieces of good news on this Friday.  We’ve had two full payments to the regular budget.  Many thanks to our friends in Nicaragua and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.  We are so close to hitting the century mark, as we have now 99 fully paid-up Member States.

**Press Briefings

And following my briefing, we will turn to hear the warm words from Reem Abaza, the Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly of these United Nations.

All right.  Who has a question?

**Questions and Answers

Maria, you're here.  You have a question.  Speak.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane, and thank you for technicians making it possible for me to get back.  And I wish you a very happy time away from your computer time next week.

So, I just was quite surprised by the numbers of United Nations Mission now who are COVID‑positive in Mali, the numbers declared, which SG mentioned in his speech yesterday.  So, I was going to ask you for an update on general numbers [inaudible] of COVID and, also, probably you have an update on the draft timeline of us getting back to United Nations Headquarters as New York has started its re-opening.

Spokesman:  So, let me take it backwards.  I don't have yet an update to share with you on the next phase of the building, but we do expect to have some announcement either later today or on Monday.  What I can tell you is whatever is decided will be guided by being very careful, by science. 

We will…  we may be a bit lagging behind New York.  We want to see how things go on the ground, but the safety of the staff, the diplomats, the visitors to the building and, of course, the journalists that come into the building is paramount.  So, we will do things in a very careful, coordinated and careful way, obviously also supporting whatever the Member States themselves decide [inaudible] in terms of [inaudible] meetings. 

So, the cases for Mali, the last ones I have are 187 cases, which include, sadly, two deaths of peacekeepers; 45 so far have recovered.  The total for the UN system as of yesterday is 953.

What I do want to add is that, obviously, the Mission in Mali is very much aware of these cases and continues to take mitigation precautionary measures. 

Just recently, restrictions of movements in and out of the Mission premises in the regional office has been established, and there's…  controlled by uniformed personnel of people going in and out.

In some of the camps, there's strict confinement measures that apply to the contingents that are most impacted, while the rest of the troops remain operational.  So, we try to isolate those groups of peacekeepers that are affected and let the other ones do their work, because they also, obviously, have to do their work.

The interregional passenger flights done by the Mission have also been suspended. 

And it is now, of course, mandatory to wear a mask in every UN facility in Mali.

Edie, please?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  First, a follow‑up on Libya.  Has the United Nations gotten to review any kind of evidence on these mass graves?  And has it been invited to do any forensic investigation?

Spokesman:  On Libya, what I can tell you is that, no, the Government has announced that they will conduct an investigation.  I understand they've also secured the site, and we will support them in whatever…  in any way we can.

Question:  On [inaudible]…

Spokesman:  Sorry.  You were breaking up.

Question:  I had…  yeah.  I had another question and I saw that I got muted.  On Lebanon, does the Secretary‑General have any comment on the latest major protests regarding the basic plummeting of the value of the Lebanese currency?  And before I get muted again, is there any update on when we all might get to talk to the Secretary‑General?

Spokesman:  Okay.  Let me just say…  sorry.  On Libya, I don't want to misspeak so let me just…  because I have something else in my head.  What I can tell you is that the Mission in Libya welcomes the decision by the Justice Minister to establish a committee to look into these mass graves, and we, the Mission, call on the members to promptly undertake the work aimed at securing the mass graves, identifying the victims, establishing a cause of death, and returning the bodies to next of kin.  And as I've said, we will provide whatever support we can.

On the Secretary‑General, we are looking at a press conference, which I hope to confirm soon, a few days prior to the anniversary…  the seventy-fifth anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter, which we all know is 26 June. 

On Lebanon, we've…  I think for us, it's, first of all, important that everyone…  all concerned avoid violence and respect the right to peacefully protest and to protect that right.  For us, national unity in Lebanon continues to be essential as these reforms are under way, and our Special Coordinator there continues to be in touch with the Government, also working with the International Support Group for Lebanon.

Okay.  Abdelhamid, yes, sir.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  A follow‑up on Libya.  There are two [inaudible] investigated developments in Libya, actually related to crimes, crimes against humanity…  or war crimes.  The ICC (International Criminal Court), they have the authority from resolution 1970 (2011), and the Panel of Experts.  Why the UN Mission authorize the Justice Department of the current Government, of the Government of National Accord?  There will be many parties who cast doubt that this investigation would be impartial.  Why don't you…  [inaudible]

Spokesman:  Can you just repeat the last part of the question, why did…  who authorized what?  I…

Question:  I mean, the statement came from UNSMIL, endorses the Government doing an investigation.  That might be…  that might not be satisfactory to many parties who will be accusing them of lacking impartiality.  Why…  if we have two kind of mechanisms, the ICC and the Panel of Experts, why they don't do the investigation about these mass graves?

Spokesman:  First of all, it's not up to us to…  we're not there to authorize the Government to do anything.  It's a sovereign Government.  It is the primary responsibility of any Government to initiate investigations into these types of crimes.  We will be there to support them, but it is the internationally recognized Government, it is their responsibility to do so.

We have made it clear in our statement in what we think…  in how we think this investigation should be done.  The ICC is separate from us and is free to do whatever they wish to do, and the Panel of Experts reports to the Security Council, and I think they have provided some very interesting and very thorough reporting on the situation in Libya.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Iftikhar, did you have a question or?  No.  Okay.

Correspondent:  Hello?

Spokesman:  Yes.  Did you have a question?

Correspondent:  Yes, yes.  I just wondered…

Spokesman:  Go ahead.

Question:  Steph, thank you.  I was just wondering whether you have an update on the FAO‑backed anti‑locust operations in Pakistan and in India, as Pakistan announces the situation is complicating because the swarms are now coming from Afghanistan after the initial influx from Iran?

Spokesman:  I don't have an update off the top of my head, but we will try to get you something as quickly as possible.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Gloria, you have a question. 

Question:  Is [inaudible] the labour laws obscured?  Because all over the world, as soon as a son is born, a sign goes up, Joe Blow and Son.  And those kids start working from the day they're born in the family trade, which gives us top tradesmen. 

I think we have to qualify and look more into the difference between that and coal mines in the Philippines, where kids are working at five years old.  I think we need what ages and under what circumstances for the child laws.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Thank you.

Toby, please. 

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Thanks very much.  I have two questions today, and I'll take them one by one, if that's okay with you.  The first concerns the sanctions and…  the intention to levy sanctions against ICC officials from the US yesterday and your…  the UN's response was whatever is decided will take place under the auspices of the host agreement [Headquarters Agreement].  And I was just asking for some clarification on that.  What relevance does the host agreement have in this particular case?  Can you give us a little more context?

Spokesman:  What I said is that the US authorities had publicly said that whatever would happen would be within the framework of the host country agreement [Headquarters Agreement].  Without going too much into the legal issues, the host country agreement regulates the way UN officials are able to work and operate when they travel to the United States…  to New York, to the United States, to attend official meetings.

Your second question?

Question:  Thank you.  Second question, this is a bit of a complicated question, but it's helpful for our audience, I think, so bear with me for a second.  But an Ohio senator today was fired from his job as a medical professional because of his response to a question…  basically, because he said COVID cases could be higher among the African‑American population because they're not washing their hands enough.  And this was regarded as a racist statement, and he was quickly terminated from his position. 

My question is, I'm appealing to the UN as a moral authority on matters of racism and human rights here to explain why that sort of attitude…  and not just in his case in particular but in general cases about systemic racism, why that kind of stereotyping and generalization is destructive in terms of the discourse of both providing good health information to the public while also maintaining positive attitudes towards disenfranchisement of people.

Spokesman:  I mean…  I'm not going to go into the details of the case, because I just saw a headline.  What I can tell you…  and I would refer you to what the Secretary‑General said on the need to fight the scourge of racism, which is…  runs deep in many, many societies all over the world.  And I'm…  it's not…  I think anyone who reads a statement like that can understand the issue within…  the offensiveness of it. 

What is clear also at a time of a pandemic, I refer you to what I said just earlier about how misinformation and disinformation costs lives, prevents the right…  prevents the people from accessing the right treatment.  The scourge of racism impacts everything from the labour market to health care to human rights to education.  And I think it's plain for everyone to see, and our focus needs to turn and redouble to fighting that scourge.

Did you have another question, Toby?

Correspondent:  No, that was it.  Thanks very much, Steph.  I appreciate it.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Anyone else have any other questions?

All right.  I was about to say goodbye, but I only say farewell and turn to Reem [Abaza], and have a great weekend, and I'll see you in about a week.  Take care.

For information media. Not an official record.