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22 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.  I would almost say that it is a pleasure to see all of you after a week off, but I may not go that far.  Although it is nice to be back.  Farhan is enjoying a well-deserved break this week.  Just to remember, please all of you mute your mics.  I noticed some side conversations going on as we were getting ready for the briefing.  So please do mute your mics.

**Security Council — Central African Republic

I will start off today with the Security Council, where, this morning, the head of the UN peace operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, said the political situation in the Central African Republic remains fragile and dominated by preparations for the presidential and legislative elections, which are scheduled for this December.  Speaking about the volatile security situation, Mr. Lacroix said armed groups in the country — including signatories of the peace agreement — have acknowledged the Secretary‑General’s appeal for a global ceasefire, while, at the same time, are still using violence for expansionist aims.  He strongly condemned yesterday’s ambush of a joint UN and national defence forces patrol, allegedly by members of the 3R armed group.

The Under-Secretary-General added that he is deeply concerned by continued violations of the peace agreement.  The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) is working closely with the guarantors and other partners, and engaging with the parties to encourage and facilitate dialogue.  They are also maintaining a robust posture to protect civilians and mitigate threats by armed groups and militias.  In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the humanitarian situation is worsening and impacting the work of the UN Mission.  The Mission has taken measures to support the Government’s response, prevent the spread of the virus, as well as to protect civilians and UN personnel.  Mr. Lacroix ended his remarks by underscoring the need for continued support to the Central African Republic.  Despite great strides in the implementation of the Political Agreement, he said, it remains fragile and the forthcoming elections will be a major test for all of us.  This afternoon, the Council will have a closed briefing on Burundi, as well as a vote on a resolution regarding Somalia.

**Somalia

And on Somalia, I can tell you that the Secretary-General welcomes today’s virtual meeting in the country between President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” and the Federal Member States’ leaders as an important step towards the resumption of dialogue and collaboration.  He calls on all stakeholders to continue to engage in dialogue to advance national priorities, which require political consensus and broad support.  The Secretary-General further urges the federal and state leaders to come together to jointly address the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

**Mali

And, over the weekend, you will have seen that we issued a statement in which the Secretary-General said he’s following with concern the recent political developments in Mali.  He expressed his full support for the ongoing efforts of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and in particular for its declaration on 19 June calling for an inclusive dialogue.  The Secretary-General also called on all political leaders to send clear messages to their supporters to exercise the utmost restraint and to refrain from any actions that are likely to further tensions.

**Syria

Turning to Syria, our humanitarian colleagues there tell us that 15 new COVID-19 cases have now been confirmed by the Government, bringing the number of cases identified by authorities to 219, including 83 recoveries and 7 deaths.  The UN remains concerned by the economic impact of the pandemic on millions of women, children and men across Syria, whose health‑care system has been decimated by almost a decade of war.  Prior to the crisis, some 80 per cent of people in Syria lived below the poverty line, with high levels of food insecurity.  Some 9.3 million people in Syria are now estimated to be food insecure, an increase of 1.4 million in the past six months alone.  This number could even rise in the coming months due to the loss of job opportunities due to the virus, particularly for those relying on daily wage labour or seasonal work.  For its part, the World Health Organization (WHO) is leading UN efforts to support preparation and mitigation measures across all of the country.

Also, on Syria, the UN, we all remain concerned over the safety and protection of more than 4 million civilians in the north‑west of the country, more than half of whom are internally displaced, following reports of shelling and airstrikes over the weekend.  Between 19 and 21 June, artillery shelling impacted 11 communities in Hama, northern Aleppo and Idleb Governorates, while air strikes reportedly affected three communities in southern Idleb and northern Hama Governorates.  Of the nearly 1 million people in north‑west Syria who fled their homes between December 2019 and early March 2020, some 840,000 of them are reportedly still displaced in the northern parts of Idleb Governorate and in northern Aleppo.  The overwhelming majority of them are women and children.  We continue to urge all parties, and those with influence over the parties, to ensure the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, in line with their obligations under international humanitarian law.

**Afghanistan — Attacks on Health‑Care Facilities

And turning to Afghanistan, I wanted to say that, there, too, we are gravely concerned by recent deliberate attacks on healthcare personnel and facilities, especially in the context of the pandemic.  A new special report released on Sunday by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) shows the harm to health‑care workers, damage to health‑care facilities and other ways in which the parties to the conflict have interfered with essential health care, both as a result of targeted attacks and as a result of ongoing fighting.  From 11 March to 23 May, the report documented 15 incidents affecting health‑care provision in the country, where 12 were deliberate attacks and the remaining events involved incidental harm.  The most abhorrent of these attacks is the attack on a maternity ward in a Kabul hospital, and that attack remains unattributed to this day.  The full report is available on UNAMA’S website.

**COVID-19 — Nigeria

And a further update on the UN’s COVID-related assistance at the country level.  In Nigeria, our humanitarian colleagues there tell us that the UN has provided vital medical kits and equipment to further support Government efforts in addressing the pandemic.  This includes over 100,000 test kits, 545 oxygen concentrators, thermometers, personal protective equipment, lab supplies and emergency health kits.  The procurement of the supplies was made possible by the One UN COVID-19 Basket Fund, jointly launched with the Nigerian Government in early April.  The number of virus cases has doubled in less than a month in Nigeria, reaching over 20,000 as of today from slightly over 10,000 at the end of last month.  Fatalities also nearly doubled during the same period.

**COVID-19 — Malawi

And from Malawi, where the virus has deeply impacted livelihoods and the economy, there are 730 cases and 11 confirmed deaths.  The UN team, led by our Resident Coordinator Maria José Torres, is helping the Government respond by delivering life-saving goods in several parts of the country.  The UN and our partners have donated 15,000 face masks and 4,000 gowns to authorities.  We have also provided care and shelter items for Malawians returning to their country, including from India and South Africa.  The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has led efforts to install 45 emergency latrines in border posts and more than 1.4 million people have received messages on hygiene.  The UN and our partners have also tested more than 1,400 returnees, with nearly 170 of them testing positive and receiving care, as well as food and personal protection equipment.  We are also supporting the Government with guidelines to reopen schools and we are distributing cash or food to 600,000 students currently out of school.

UNICEF is providing material for students studying at home in hard-to-reach areas.  The UN team is targeting 8 million people with COVID-19 prevention information over the radio and mobile phones.  We are also partnering to address gender-based violence through hundreds of community victim support units.  The World Food Programme (WFP), as well as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), are leading our efforts to assess food security needs to identify hotspots to rollout the Government’s food and cash assistance programme.  And also, on a related note, I expect a statement on the upcoming elections in Malawi to be issued by my office later today.

[The Spokesperson’s Office later issued the following statement:  On the eve of presidential elections in Malawi scheduled to take place tomorrow, the Secretary-General calls on all political actors and stakeholders to renew their commitment to credible and peaceful elections, while observing all preventive measures against the spread of COVID-19.  The Secretary-General underlines the importance of refraining from violence and hate speech, and of upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms.  The Secretary-General reiterates the support of the United Nations to the people and Government of Malawi in their efforts to consolidate peace, democracy and sustainable development.]

**COVID-19 — United Nations Missions

And a few updates from our Peacekeeping Missions.  In Darfur, the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) conducted a mass awareness campaign using megaphones mounted on open vehicles and vans adorned with posters and banners with slogans on measures to mitigate and fight the virus.  The campaign was conducted in towns, in markets, as well as in 10 camps for displaced people across Darfur.  The Mission estimates that more than 1 million residents from five Darfur states have been reached through this campaign.

And in Mali, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) continues to support the country’s Health Ministry to fight the pandemic.  Last week, the Mission handed over 48 metric tons of medical supplies and equipment to the Ministry, which is part of a total of 300 tons of expected equipment to be donated in support of the national response plan for the virus.  In the regions of Mopti, Gao, Ménaka, Taoudéni, Timbuktu and Kidal, the Mission also provided $2 million worth of personal protective equipment and hygiene materials.  This is in addition to medical equipment and materials provided earlier this month in Timbuktu and Taoudéni.

**COVID-19 — Tourism

And the World Tourism Organization (WTO) today released new data measuring the impact of COVID-19 on the tourism sector.  After several months of unprecedented disruption, WTO says the sector is beginning to restart in some areas, most notably in Northern Hemisphere destinations.  At the same time, restrictions on travel remain in place in a majority of global destinations, and tourism remains one of the worst affected of all sectors.  While April was expected to be one of the busiest times of the year due to the Easter holidays, the introduction of travel restrictions has led to a fall of 97 per cent in international tourist arrivals.  Between January and April, international tourist arrivals declined by 44 per cent, with a loss of about $195 billion from international tourism.  According to WTO, among the potential impacts of the pandemic on tourism in 2020 is the risk to 100 to 120 million direct tourism jobs.

**Senior Personnel Appointment

And just to let you know, on Friday, after the briefing, we did put out a note about a senior personnel appointment, which I wanted to read into the record.  The Secretary-General has appointed Najat Rochdi of Morocco as his Deputy Special Coordinator for Lebanon.  Ms. Rochdi will also serve as Resident Coordinator, as well as the Humanitarian Coordinator in Lebanon.  Ms. Rochdi succeeds Philippe Lazzarini of Switzerland, who went on to head UNRWA.  The Secretary-General is of course very grateful to Mr. Lazzarini’s accomplishments and wishes him continued success in his new appointment as Commissioner-General.  Ms. Rochdi brings over 20 years of experience in development and humanitarian assistance and international coordination in conflict and post-conflict areas, including through her latest assignment as Senior Adviser to the Special Envoy for Syria on humanitarian issues.

**Secretary-General — UNRWA

And tomorrow, I wanted to let you know that the Secretary-General will take part in a virtual ministerial conference on UNRWA called “A Strong UNRWA in a Challenging World — Mobilizing Collective Action”. That meeting is being co‑chaired by the Foreign Minister of Jordan and the Minister for International Development Cooperation of Sweden.  The event seeks to help UNRWA bridge its financial gap for 2020 and to ensure that it receives sufficient, predictable and sustainable resources to continue delivering on its mandate in the coming years.  And we anticipate that the Secretary-General will also speak, or at least make some brief opening remarks, at the press conference immediately after the virtual conference ends.  You will have or will be sent a media advisory on how to view the meeting and participate in the press conference, which is being hosted by UNRWA on a different platform.

**Secretary-General — UN Action Plan For COVID-19

But, more importantly, on Wednesday, I expect the Secretary-General to be here with us for a real press conference to launch the UN Action Plan for COVID‑19, which will layout the UN action for a comprehensive response and recovery from the virus.  The press conference also comes on the pre-eve of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Charter of these United Nations, which, of course, you know took place in San Francisco.  We will confirm that press conference later today.

[The Spokesperson’s Office later clarified that the Secretary-General’s press conference will be held on Thursday.]

And please remember, if you want to send me… if you want me to see your questions on the chat, send it to all panellists or send it only to me by name.  Do not send it to the person labelled as "host", because that is our wise and competent technician, who will be happy to receive your questions but will not be happy to answer them.  Let me put on my glasses, see, and go to chat and see if I actually have any questions.  Bear with me.  All right.  James Bays, go ahead, and then we will go to Erol.  James?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Welcome back, Steph.  Before I start, I have two questions, but just to be clear, the UNRWA event tomorrow, the SG is just going to make a statement.  He will not take our questions, just to be clear.

Spokesman:  That's right.  He'll make a… he's expected to speak at the opening, obviously, the event, and he may come and just deliver a closing statement at the press conference, but will not… likely not take questions.  And then we will have, fingers crossed, a full‑blown press conference with him and, on Wednesday on WebEx in which he will be delighted to take your questions, especially you, James.

Question:  Can I then start with two questions?  The first one is the war of words that's been going on for a very long time about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam seems to have hit a new level.  Certainly, there've been statements from the Foreign Ministers of Egypt and Ethiopia in recent days.  There's also been the letter that the Egyptian Foreign Minister has written to the Security Council.  Can I check whether he's also written a letter to the Secretary‑General?  And what is the Secretary‑General's position on this?  How concerned is he that this dispute is only getting worse?  And does he think it's time for him to use his good offices on this one?

Spokesman:  Well, let me tell you, at this point, we're, obviously, watching very closely the developments, the various statements coming from the different parties around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.  From our point of view, I think, we urge Egypt, we urge Ethiopia and Sudan to work together to intensify efforts to peacefully resolve outstanding differences.  I think, for us, it's important to underscore the importance of the 2015 Declaration of Principles on the dam, and that declaration emphasized the cooperation based on common understanding, mutual benefit, good faith, the win‑win aspect and the principles of international law.  So, at this point, we're encouraging progress towards an amicable agreement in accordance with these principles.

Question:  And my second question also happens to deal with Egypt, and this is a different matter, though, Egypt threatening to intervene in Libya militarily.  What is the Secretary‑General's reaction to that?

Spokesman:  Look, I think we're… again, we've been watching this closely.  We're alarmed by the continued military mobilization in central Libya, particularly in Sirte, the transfer of weapons from abroad, the continued recruitment of mercenaries, all flagrant violations of the arms embargo.  I think it's also important for none of the parties to do anything that would make the situation worse.  Our Acting SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary‑General], Stephanie Williams, is leading, I think, what could be labelled as intensive outreach efforts with Libyan and international stakeholders to try to de‑escalate the situation, and that's really what we're focusing on right now is the de‑escalation.  From her point, she's, her message to the Libyan, to their, the international partners of the various parties is to consider recent political initiatives and resume political process within the framework of the dialogue that's been facilitated by the UN and the process linked to it.

Question:  A very quick follow‑up, if I can.  So, would an Egyptian military intervention, in the UN's view, make the situation worse?

Spokesman:  I'm not going to go into hypotheticals, but it is clear that the last thing that Libya needs right now is more fighting, more military mobilization, more transfer of weapons, more presence of either foreign fighters or mercenaries on its soil.  I mean, if you look at what happened and who is impacted by it, it's, once again, it's the Libyan people.  We've had, what, more than 15 months of conflict since the… since Mr. Haftar's attack on Tripoli in April of last year.  You compound that by the socioeconomic impact of the virus.  You now have 1 million people in Libya who are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance.  Almost half a million people are internally displaced.  On top of that, you have more than half a million migrants and refugees and asylum seekers.  The Libyan authorities, the UN are all trying to help alleviate the suffering of the Libyan people in very challenging times.  So, what we are asking for is a halt to the fighting, and what we've seen very recently is alarming us, as I've said.  Okay.  Let me go back to my list here.  Erol?

Question:  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, I can.

Question:  Okay.  Very good.  Hi, Steph.  Hi, everybody.  My question is, will the Secretary‑General deliver any kind of speech for Srebrenica since he's not going to be able to travel there as he said?  And number two, is there going to be any kind of virtual commemoration at the UN?  And who will participate?

Spokesman:  On your second question, I don't know.  We can try to find out.  I have no doubt there will be a message or a statement from the Secretary‑General on the Srebrenica anniversary.  We'll keep you posted.  Edie and then Abdelhamid.

Question:  Thank you very much, Steph.  I have a follow‑up on Libya.  Italy, Germany and the United States are pushing for a ceasefire and de‑escalation of tensions in Libya following this warning from Egypt that it would intervene militarily if Turkish‑backed forces attacked Sirte.  They say that a ceasefire is urgent, and they also say the naming of a United Nations envoy is urgent, as well as strong enforcement of the arms embargo.  What is the situation of the naming of a new UN envoy?

Spokesman:  Well, that process continues, but as you know, the process of naming a head of a mission, right, to succeed the SRSG that we had and any Special Representative goes through the Security Council.  I… the Council has its own processes and its own way of working, so we continue to work with them on that, though I would also want to underscore that Stephanie Williams is firmly in charge and firmly in command, and the Mission is, has a very strong leader at this time.

Question:  Can I follow up and ask, what role is the United Nations playing in this effort by Italy, Germany and the United States to push for a ceasefire?

Spokesman:  Look, I mean, I think… we all want a cessation of hostilities.  We all want a ceasefire, and we've been talking about it, I would venture to say, since April 2019.  So, this is not something that is new to us.  It's been our message for a long time.  Ms. Williams continues to be in touch with all the parties, which means the parties in Libya and the parties that have an influence of those who are in Libya with the message of the need to quickly de‑escalate and a need of cessation of hostilities and to resume the political dialogue, of course.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Welcome back.  I just want to say I sent you an email while you were away.  I expect an answer to [inaudible].  My question is about when the [inaudible], Stéphane, on Middle East and [inaudible] Palestinian question.  It's a ministerial meeting and debate over the annexation.  First, would the SG participate in this important [inaudible]?

Spokesman:  I… I'm not able to confirm it at this point, but I would not be surprised if he did participate, alongside with Mr. [Nickolay] Mladenov.

Question:  Is there any scheduled meeting between him and the Palestinian Foreign Minister who will be… delivering the speech on behalf of Palestine?

Spokesman:  No… not that I'm aware, but I can check.

Correspondent:  Thank you very much.

Spokesman:  You're very welcome.  Ibtisam and then Toby.

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Welcome back.  I have two questions, one also on Palestine.  Could you give us more… a clearer picture which efforts did the Secretary‑General undertake to put more pressure on Israelis against the annexation, anything in that direction?  And also, on Libya, a follow‑up and on the issue of the Egyptian announcement, did the Secretary‑General try to, I don't know, make phone calls with the Egyptian President, try to contact parties who have more influence on Egypt?  Thank you.  On Egypt.

Spokesman:  On that part, I would just say that contacts have been had at various levels, and I will leave it at that.  On your first question, you know, this has been Mr. Mladenov's message.  I think what he's delivered publicly in, notably in his last Security Council briefing, he has delivered privately to his counterparts in Israel.  And obviously, that's an essential issue of what will be addressed on Wednesday in the Security Council.

Question:  Could I have a follow‑up?  So, I mean, this message is not, nothing new.  You have been talking about it and repeating it, and I'm aware of the fact that the UN has also limited… but is there other things regarding the Quartet or other steps that you are trying to take, and could you say more about that?

Spokesman:  I mean, we've been in touch, as I've said from here, we've been in touch with the Quartet partners.  Mr. Mladenov has spent a lot of time talking to his Quartet counterpart.  I mean, as it's clear to you, we have not been able to announce a full meeting of the Quartet, which is something that we would like to see, which I think is, could be an important mechanism.  Okay, Toby and then Maria.

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Thanks very much.  Just want to ask about Syria COVID‑19 cases, seems to be very low with 7 deaths and only 219 cases in the country.  Do you have any more information about why that is?  Seems like a… really a stroke of…

Spokesman:  I think in parts of Syria that are, where security is an issue that are in conflict, I think it would, it would not be surprising if we had an under‑reporting of cases given the impact of the conflict in Syria on the health‑care system.  Okay.  Maria?

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Taking into account that PGA just announced that General Assembly will be virtual this year, and [inaudible] are discussions about P5 summit, like, in one of the places where it will be held was named the General Assembly.  Do you foresee the [inaudible] this P5 leaders to come to UN to hold this meeting?  And was Russian Mission probably in touch with Secretariat on this matter?

Spokesman:  I'm not aware that they were in touch with us on this.  Obviously, whatever Member States decide, we will support.  I think, seems to me there needs to be some agreement amongst the P5, and then the Secretariat will be there, as it always is, to support Member States in whichever way they want.  Okay.  Abdelhamid, did you have another question?

Question:  Yes, I do.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, I can.

Question:  I just have a piece of news which came to me a few minutes ago that the French Presidency of the Council will discuss the issue of the Ethiopian‑Egyptian crisis in today's meeting at 3 p.m., which is consultations on Burundi, I believe.  Can you confirm that, please?

Spokesman:  No, I would encourage you to ask the French Presidency.  Nobody tells me anything.  All right.  Unless there are any other questions…?

Correspondent:  Just, Steph, I…

Spokesman:  Yes, Iftikhar.  Go ahead.

Question:  Yes.  About this report on the attacks on health facilities in Afghanistan, what is the UNAMA's assessment about the progress towards holding intra‑Afghan dialogue?

Spokesman:  Look, we very much still hope that these, that the dialogues will move forward in a concrete way.  We are in touch with the parties, but this is an Afghan‑led process, which we, of course, are supporting.  I just wanted to add that, if the SG does participate in the press event tomorrow, we will likely not have a Noon Briefing, because it's a little too many, too much stuff going on at once; we will just post highlights.  And then we'll confirm [the Secretary-General’s] press conference by the end of today for all of you to enjoy.  All right.  Take care.  Thank you, all.

For information media. Not an official record.