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17 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 Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon, everyone.  Welcome, and please do mute your mics.  Happy Wednesday.

**Racism

First off, you’re aware that there was a session in Geneva today on racism.  The Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, addressed the Human Rights Council today in its session on racism.  She noted that, as the Secretary-General said, “The position of the United Nations on racism is crystal clear:  this scourge violates the United Nations Charter and debases our core values.”  The Secretary‑General, she noted, has called for dismantling racist structures and confronting the systemic ills of institutions.  In the UN, he has launched a one‑year process to address these grave staff concerns.  The most recent trigger for the recent protests, the Deputy Secretary-General recalled, was the killing of George Floyd in an appalling act of police brutality.  But, the violence spans history and borders alike, across the globe.  She said that the United Nations has a duty to respond to the anguish that has been felt by so many for so long.  Equal rights are enshrined in our founding Charter.  Just as we fought apartheid years ago, she said, so must we fight the hatred, oppression and humiliation today.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

Also today, in Geneva, the Human Rights Council looked at the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  In her opening remarks, Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, highlighted progress achieved in the country to open up political space.  She also noted measures taken to end corruption and embezzlement of public resources.  Ms. Bachelet expressed deep concern over the deterioration of several situations of armed conflict in the country.  She said that around 1,300 civilians have been killed in conflicts between armed groups and Government forces over the past eight months.  The High Commissioner urged the Government to intensify efforts to end the increasingly brutal attacks and promote peaceful coexistence.  She also said that it is essential to extend State institutions and services throughout the country in order to stop attacks by armed groups and ensure respect for rights, including the right to life.

**China-Africa Summit on COVID-19

The Secretary-General made remarks today by video to the China-Africa Summit on Solidarity Against COVID-19.  He said that, as COVID-19 spreads around the world and across the continent, Africa has responded swiftly.  As of now, reported cases are lower than feared, but he warned that much hangs in the balance.  The Secretary-General cautioned that the pandemic is a grave threat to Africa’s progress, potentially aggravating long-standing inequalities and heightening hunger, malnutrition and vulnerability to disease.  He stressed that it is essential that Africa receives the solidarity and support it needs.  In responding to COVID-19 and all our current global challenges — from climate change to lawlessness in cyberspace — we require unity and solidarity, he said.  He added that no country is safe and healthy until all countries are safe and healthy.  The Secretary-General’s full remarks are online.

**South Sudan

And in South Sudan, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) tells us that it is concerned by reports of renewed clashes and increased tensions near Pibor.  In the past few days, many civilians have escaped reported violence in Gumuruk in the Jonglei region.  The Mission has reinforced its base in Pibor so it can carry out extra patrols and provide security for civilians.  The Mission is also in contact with the leaders of the groups involved in the fighting and is urging them to restore calm and come together for mediation and reconciliation.  Over the past five months, violence has escalated in Jonglei, resulting in the death and injury of many civilians, as well as communities being displaced and homes being destroyed.  Not only is the fighting causing immense harm to civilians, but it also risks pulling organized armed groups into violence that could unravel the fragile peace agreement.  UNMISS urges the Unity Government to protect all citizens and to appoint governors in 10 states so they can work to prevent further conflict and build peace.

**Yemen

The Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, has expressed her condolences to the families of civilians killed in Monday’s attack on a vehicle in Shaada District, Sa’ada Governorate, in the north.  Initial field reports indicate that at least 12 civilians, including 4 children, lost their lives.  Fighting has continued in Yemen despite the Secretary-General’s call in March for a global ceasefire.  More than 800 civilian casualties have been reported due to fighting since January, with several incidents involving multiple civilian casualties recorded since the end of May.  In addition, Ms. Grande warned that humanitarian funding is running out, affecting millions of people who depend on the food aid and the health services that we provide.  A funding deficit of more than $1 billion remains, following the 2 June High-Level Pledging Event for Yemen, when donors pledged $1.35 billion, out of the $2.41 billion needed for essential humanitarian activities through the year.

**Syria

Turning to Syria, our humanitarian colleagues say that they are increasingly concerned about rapidly rising food prices in a country where more than 11 million women, children and men urgently need humanitarian assistance.  Food prices have more than doubled in the last year, rising by 133 per cent across the country.  According to the World Food Programme (WFP), 9.3 million people across Syria are food insecure, an increase of 1.4 million people in just the last six months.  Another 2.2 million more people risk becoming food insecure.  Food prices have soared in the past few weeks with the informal exchange rate rapidly deteriorating.  In May, the cost of a standard food basket increased on average by 11 per cent compared to April, a number which had already increased by 16 per cent from March.  Humanitarian organizations, including WFP through food assistance, are addressing needs at a massive scale.  From January to March, the UN and partner organizations have delivered assistance to an average of 6.2 million people each month, including life‑saving food for 4.5 million people across Syria’s 14 governates.

**COVID-19 — Serbia

Turning now to the UN system, and its efforts related to COVID-19.  In Serbia, there are more than 12,300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 250 deaths.  Nine UN agencies, led by the Resident Coordinator, Françoise Jacob, and guided by the World Health Organization (WHO), are supporting the country’s health response, with special focus on the most vulnerable groups.  The UN team has mobilized $26 million, which has been used to purchase medical supplies and is also being used for logistics, including flights to deliver life-saving items.

The UN team is also supporting Serbia’s efforts to communicate on COVID-19, reaching some 6 million people.  Messages have been tailored for different groups, such as refugees, asylum seekers and people at risk of statelessness.  Some 45,000 people — including women, youth, the Romani people, persons with disabilities and the elderly — have received hygiene kits and humanitarian aid from the UN, with the Red Cross and non-governmental organizations.  The UN has also gathered 7,000 volunteers to support local governments’ efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.  Through a UNICEF-backed online platform, 500 adolescents are offering peer support to cope with the pandemic.  The UN, together with the World Bank and the European Union, is supporting the Government to assess the social and economic impacts of the pandemic.

**COVID-19 — Dexamethasone

And some related positive news:  WHO welcomed yesterday the initial clinical trial results from the United Kingdom showing that dexamethasone, a corticosteroid, can be life-saving for patients who are critically ill with COVID‑19.  According to preliminary findings shared with WHO, for patients on ventilators, the treatment was shown to reduce mortality by one third.  For patients requiring only oxygen, mortality was cut by about one fifth.  The benefit was only seen in patients who are seriously ill with the virus.  The benefit was not observed in patients with milder disease.  WHO said that it is looking forward to the full data analysis of the trial in the coming days.  The agency added that it will coordinate analysis to increase the overall understanding of this intervention.  WHO clinical guidance will be updated to reflect how and when the drug should be used.

**Children

Universal child benefits, such as unconditional cash payments or tax transfers, are crucial to fight child poverty, yet they are only available in 1 out of every 10 countries worldwide.  That’s according to a new report published today by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Overseas Development Institute.  The report says that universal cash benefits for children in middle‑income countries cost just 1 per cent of GDP and would lead to a 20 per cent decline in poverty across the entire population.  UNICEF’s Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, said that, now more than ever, as the economic fallout of COVID-19 threatens to roll back years of progress in reducing poverty, universal child benefits can be a lifeline.  She added that they can protect vulnerable families from deepening levels of poverty and deprivation, and can save countries from catastrophic societal and economic impacts.

**Desertification

Today is the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.  This year’s theme is “Food.  Feed.  Fibre.” and focuses on changing public attitudes to the leading driver of desertification and land degradation:  humanity’s relentless production and consumption.  Land degradation currently affects some 3.2 billion people and 70 per cent of the world’s land has been transformed by human activity.  In his message, the Secretary-General said that the health of humanity depends on the health of the planet, and he calls for scaling up land restoration and nature‑based solutions for climate action and the benefit of future generations.  You will find that online.

**Press Briefings

Immediately following my briefing, our friend Reem Abaza, the Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly will brief you, so please stay connected.  And tomorrow, my guest will be Amer Daoudi, the UN World Food Programme's Director of Operations and COVID-19 Corporate Response.  He will brief you on WFP’s air and logistics services for COVID-19 humanitarian and health response.  And that is all I have to read, and now we'll turn the floor over to your questions.  So, please raise your hand by saying in the chat room that you have a question.  I already have one question from Majeed Gly.  So, Majeed, you're free to ask.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  I have two question.  The first one is about Syria.  Today, US imposed new sanctions on Syria.  What is the Secretary‑General's position about this?  And in general, when it comes to the sanctions, do you think the US and European Union should lift the sanctions on Syria?  And my second question is about developments from Iraq.  Turkey launched a military operation on the border with Iraq, which Baghdad protested.  It targeted… the operation targeted more than 150 Kurdish targets.  And today, in the last 24 hours, ground troops from Turkey entered the Iraqi borders.  What is the UN's reaction for this recent military development?  Okay.

Deputy Spokesman:  To take your questions in order, first of all, concerning the Ceasar Act, as you know, the UN has been closely following the issue of sanctions programmes relating to Syria.  As you're aware, the Secretary‑General has made a global appeal for the waiver of sanctions that can undermine the capacity of the country to ensure access to food, essential health supplies and medical support in light of the COVID‑19 pandemic.  As to sanctions programmes relating to Syria, we note the public assurances made by relevant States that their sanctions programmes do not affect humanitarian supplies nor target medicines, and we welcome their commitment to fully apply humanitarian exemptions.  As for your second question concerning the situation in Iraq, we are following the developments closely, and it's clear that the parties would need to follow maximum restraint.  And regarding the situation between Turkey and Iraq, it's clear that we would want those two countries to resolve the situation peacefully through dialogue and negotiation.  Okay.  Let us see who else has a hand up.  James Bays is next, so James.

Question:  Farhan, obviously, very concerning, the situation regarding India and China.  Can you tell us what communications the Secretary‑General has had, whether there's been any other communications with senior UN officials?

Deputy Spokesman:  I don't think it's appropriate to detail the various communications, but we are making our messages known.  We've made clear that we're concerned about the reports of violence and the deaths at the Line of Actual Control, and we urge both sides to exercise maximum restraint.  And certainly, we've taken positive note of the reports that the two countries have engaged to de‑escalate the situation.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  I want to go back to the report of the children and armed conflict.  In that item, it’s called Israel and the State of Palestine.  I am looking for a justification why they stand both entities together, why Israel and Palestine came under one item.  When we talk about, for example, 1,565 children were… their rights were violated, only 6 Israelis.  When they talk about killing, there were 32 Palestinians and 1 Israeli dead.  When they talk about detention, they are all Palestinian and none of them Israeli.  Putting them together under one file has a malicious intention, to put them in one basket and say this is the number of children whose rights were violated.  Why not separate them?  I need a justification from Ms. Virginia Gamba.

Deputy Spokesman:  On that, I… the report itself explains its methodologies and its… and I would simply refer you to the text of the report, which explains all of the various violations that it records and is essentially self‑explanatory.  Beyond that, in terms of why it's written, we put that… the contents, the work that is being done, the research that's being done, in the hands of Ms. Gamba and her office.  She described the work that she did, and she also, I believe, answered your questions on the… and Ibtisam's questions on the Israeli‑Palestinian parts of the report in her briefing to you on Monday.  So, I would simply refer you to that.  But, the Secretary‑General… as you know, the report goes out in his name, and he fully supports the work that the team has done on it.  Benny?

Question:  Farhan, so, on the speech to the Human Rights Council, how could anybody… how does Amina Mohammed or the Secretary‑General or anybody take seriously the Human Rights Council opinions on racism when its own members, you know, are famous for pretty much preaching their own sins as somebody else's?  Just as an example, Venezuela today raised an issue of police brutality in the United States, which is related to racism, obviously, Venezuela.  I mean, can we take this seriously?  I mean, is that even credible?

Deputy Spokesman:  Benny, there's no rule that says that, in order to take issues seriously, we must ourselves be perfect.  The UN has made it very clear that all countries have problems with racism.  This is something that the Deputy Secretary‑General said in her own remarks today, that this is a global problem because…

Correspondent:  Yeah, but she mentioned specifically two countries…

Deputy Spokesman:  Hold on, please.  Let me complete the thought, and then you'll go.  In order to deal with these issues, we, ourselves, have to take a critical look and a hard look at what each country does.  And we made it very clear; there's no political ideology, no national capacity that is immune from racism.  This is something that all societies have to tackle, and one of the ways that they need to tackle it is by dealing with it honestly.  Now, you were saying?

Question:  Sorry.  I was saying that she specifically mentioned just two countries, the United States and Britain, and no one else.  So, I mean, there is clearly… this is triggered by an event in the United States, which does point to racism, but I mean, when you… when the Human Rights Council is doing its… I mean, China is about to become a member, Uyghurs.  I mean, it's just… it defies credibility.  And since the focus is on the United States and Britain, in her case — I don't know — it kind of, like, loses credibility, I think.

Deputy Spokesman:  I think you're actually reflecting your own personal opinion and your own personal biases on this topic.  I mean, my basic point still stands — that every country, even the countries that are lauded in other aspects or countries with different constitutional protections concerning the treatment of races, every country has to look at this seriously, because all countries have had these problems.  Amina Mohammed spoke, actually, very eloquently this morning about how her own personal experiences have shaped her, and she's had to deal with problems having to do with the colour of her own skin throughout her own life.  The Secretary‑General is very aware that there are problems here at the United Nations itself, and so he is also encouraging staff to look at this issue.  And as you know, he's initiated a programme so that the UN itself deals with racial issues.  The bottom line is the problem will not be solved from running away from it or for refusing to see it, and the problem cannot be solved by saying, until everyone is good, it doesn't merit discussion.  Okay.  So, after that, I believe Edie has a question.

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  It's sort of a follow‑up question to both Majeed and to James.  Is the Secretary‑General actively trying to engage the Chinese and the Indians, the two most populous countries in the world?  And on the same matter, is… I mean on a different matter, is he trying to engage Turkey and Iraq, because we are talking about an incursion into the sovereignty of another country?

Deputy Spokesman:  Certainly, on both topics, we'll be engaged at various levels.  I don't think I'll be able to state in either case what specific officials we're contacting at this point.  But, yes, we have our various concerns, and we're reaching out at various levels to make sure that, in both cases, maximum restraint is followed.  And Majeed has another question.

Question:  Yes, Farhan.  I just wanted to ask about, you know, Security Council still hasn't adopted a resolution or a common position with regard to COVID‑19, this global pandemic.  And we're seeing every country is dealing with it by their own.  There's no global consensus on how to deal with this.  And in the beginning, we see… we saw this urgency from Secretary‑General to have such a position, a common consensus among the Council members and others.  Has the Secretary‑General [given] up on the Council reaching a consensus on this?  Especially, we are not seeing much urgency at the Council level to have a resolution with regard to COVID‑19.

Deputy Spokesman:  No, he hasn't given up.  Obviously, it's been frustrating, and the Secretary‑General, if you've seen his recent interviews, has made clear his frustrations at the lack of international unity in terms of dealing with COVID‑19.  It has been frustrating and has made our ability to deal with the pandemic on a worldwide scale much more difficult, but he continues to hope that the Security Council will come together, and we do need to hear from the Security Council whenever it can do so.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan, again.  The statement issued by 50 UN human rights independent experts about the annexation of the West Bank on 1 July by Israel — have you received the letter, that the SG's shared this letter?  It concludes that… it enumerates the number of human rights violations that come from Israeli [inaudible] Palestinian — it records at least about 20, at least, areas of violation.  And it also put the blame on the United States for protecting such a country.  Is that country qualified to talk to people about human rights [inaudible] on what shouldn't… what this party should do or shouldn't?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, as regards to the views of the human rights rapporteurs, their views are in their own independent expertise, and I have nothing further to say in terms of comment about that.  The Secretary‑General's own views and the views of Nickolay Mladenov and the other senior officials dealing with this are clear.  We have been opposed to annexation.  We're opposed to unilateral steps that harm the two‑State solution.  And as we get closer to the start of July, if there's anything further that needs to be said from our end, we will say it.  But, you'll have seen what we've said, including in the briefings to the Security Council and in the remarks by the Secretary‑General, and we stick to those.  And unless I see any further questions, I will now turn the floor over to Reem Abaza.

Correspondent:  No.  Hi.

Deputy Spokesman:  Oh, wait.  One more?

Correspondent:  I did have a comment.  I feel that, in America, the real people who have a right to a bigger voice are the indigenous Indians who were eradicated by the new settlers in America over the years.  I think, historically, those people really have a right to be unhappy and feel that they're not equal citizens.  Going back to Africa, unfortunately, I think, personally — this is personal — we have to go back to history, where in Africa, the chiefs enslaved their own people and then, unfortunately, commercially with not quite legitimate whites arranged for them to come to the new world, America, and be slaves.  But it started in Africa, unfortunately.

Deputy Spokesman:  Thank you, and your point is noted.  I'd like to remind you, though, Gloria, that these are briefings at which the reporters are to ask questions.  But, yes, your point is noted.  And of course, we do have a Special Rapporteur who reports to the Human Rights Council on indigenous affairs, as well.  And with that, I will turn the floor over to Reem Abaza.  Reem, the floor is yours.

For information media. Not an official record.