15 July 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 morning to all of you and a very happy hump day.  This morning, I think it is Wednesday…

**COVID-19 — Youth

This morning, the Secretary-General took part in the ninth session of the United Nations’ Coping with COVID webinar series, convened by his Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake.  The Secretary-General said the pandemic has highlighted the fragility of our societies and the need to build back better.  He also stressed that youth have a key role in helping to imagine a better future for everyone, one that is more sustainable and more inclusive.  He also stressed the UN’s work to ensure that the world moves to implement universal health care and that mental health is given the priority it deserves.  The Secretary-General also heard young people’s experiences and feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, sadness and grief due to the impacts of the virus, as well as their solutions for how to deal with the pandemic.

**Sustainable Development

Also this morning, the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development continues.  The members heard from regional representatives on their findings and recommendations to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  This was followed by presentations from Estonia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Austria, Seychelles, and the Syrian Arab Republic, all on their Voluntary National Reviews.  And this afternoon there will presentations from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; Trinidad and Tobago; Mozambique, as well as Papua New Guinea.

**Security Council — Yemen

The Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, will brief the Security Council this afternoon on the Safer oil tanker that is anchored off the coast of Yemen.

In May, a leak on the tanker brought us closer than ever to an environmental catastrophe.  Last week, Ansar Allah authorities confirmed in writing they would accept a long-planned UN mission to the tanker, which we hope will take place within the next few weeks.  Mr. Lowcock will provide details to the Council of how we propose to deal with the situation on the tanker.

**COVID-19 — Syria

Turning to Syria, I can tell you that we remain concerned about the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases across the country.  To date, the Syrian Ministry of Health has announced 439 cases, including 21 deaths.  Eight lab-confirmed COVID cases have also been reported in north-west of the country.  Additionally, six cases have been reported in the north-east, including one death.  While COVID-19 cases across Syria remain relatively low, the overall risk remains very high, especially in areas where there are large displaced populations.  The World Health Organization (WHO) is leading the UN’s preparedness and mitigation measures across the country, including in the north-west and in the north-east.


And we wanted to let you know about how the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) has made its fastest allocation in its history:  In an innovative approach to dealing with severe flooding in Bangladesh, the United Nations is taking action before disaster hits by releasing more than $5 million.  The funds were made available within four hours of a warning that floods could reach critical levels in the coming days — to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).  These agencies are using the resources to distribute cash, livestock feed, storage supplies and hygiene kits.  Mark Lowcock, our Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that advances in data and predictive analytics mean that we can predict many crises and take action as soon as soon we know a problem is on its way.

**COVID-19 — Peacekeeping

And an update from our peacekeeping colleagues on what they’re doing to respond to the pandemic:

In Kosovo, the UN Mission (UNMIK) has wrapped the second phase of a donation campaign, delivering personal protective equipment packages to 33 municipalities, including boxes of gloves and masks, as well as tablet computers.

In South Sudan, the UN Mission there (UNMISS) carried out a campaign to raise awareness in Western Equatoria province, delivering messages on the importance of frequent hand-washing and physical distancing in multiple languages to remote areas.

And the African Union-UN joint mission in Darfur (UNAMID) is working with local health authorities to organize workshops and sensitization sessions on COVID-19.  Sessions focused on the social consequences of the lockdown on women, including domestic violence.  The mission will expand this initiative to other parts of Darfur which are considered high risk for COVID-19.

**COVID-19 — Zambia

And updates from our colleagues in the field in country offices who are working on the pandemic, this time in Zambia and Bahrain:

In Zambia, which has more than 2,200 confirmed cases and more than 80 deaths due to COVID-19, the UN team, led by the Resident Coordinator, Coumba Mar Gadio, is working closely with authorities to respond to the crisis on all fronts.  The UN Development Programme (UNDP) provided 60 laptops and 1,500 wireless routers worth about $300,000 to nine government agencies and departments.  A local mobile phone [provider] called MTN Zambia is partnering with the UN to donate data access plans for these new routers.  This initiative aims to boost the Government’s information management and processing capacities to allow it to share verified data on COVID-19 more effectively, including in remote areas.

**COVID-19 — Bahrain

And in Bahrain, where there are more than 34,000 confirmed cases and more than 100 deaths, the UN team there is led by the acting Resident Coordinator, Stefano Pettinato.  Building on the work of 20 UN agencies, funds, and programmes, our team issued the Joint UN COVID-19 Socio-Economic Response and Recovery Framework for Bahrain.  This plan outlines a set of evidence-based and needs-driven actions to support the Government’s work on a rapid response and long-term recovery plan from the pandemic.


The World Health Organization said today that 75 countries have submitted expressions of interest to protect their population and those of other nations through the joint COVAX Facility.  This is a mechanism designed to guarantee rapid, fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.  COVAX is led by the World Health Organization, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), working in partnership with developed and developing country vaccine manufacturers.

The goal of COVAX is, by the end of 2021, to deliver 2 billion doses of safe, effective vaccines that have passed regulatory approval and/or WHO prequalification processes.  These vaccines will be delivered equally to all participating countries, proportional to their populations.  Health-care workers will have initial priority and the facility will then expand to cover 20 per cent of the population of participating countries.

Significant progress has been achieved by the COVAX partners to date, with seven of the nine candidate vaccines supported by CEPI already in clinical trials.

**Child Immunizations

On a separate note, the World Health Organization and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) today warned of an alarming decline in the number of children receiving life-saving vaccines around the world.  This is due to disruptions in the delivery and uptake of immunization services caused by the pandemic.  According to new data by WHO and UNICEF, these disruptions threaten to reverse hard-won progress to reach more children and adolescents with a wider range of vaccines, which has already been hampered by a decade of stalling coverage.


Turning to Venezuela, the UN Human Rights Office today released a report in which, among other things, the High Commissioner called on the Government to complete the announced reforms to the justice system to guarantee its independence and impartiality and to carry out their obligations to investigate any allegation of torture and ill-treatment, among other measures.

The report can be found on the UN Human Rights Office’s website.

**World Youth Skills Day

Today marks the World Youth Skills Day.  The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, is launching a Global Skills Academy.  The aim is to equip 1 million young persons with employability and resilience skills and help them find jobs during the looming recession, when youth employment prospects look bleak.  The Academy will operate through a matching process facilitated by UNESCO’s global network for institutions specialized in Technical and Vocational Education and Training, otherwise known as UNEVOC.

According to a recent policy brief issued by the Secretary-General on “The World of Work and COVID-19”, young people account for more than 40 per cent of employees in hard-hit sectors worldwide.  Even before the crisis hit, 267 million young people were not in employment, education or training.

**Artificial Intelligence

And lastly and still staying with UNESCO, our friends in Paris are launching today a global online consultation on the ethics of artificial intelligence.  The aim is to give everyone around the world the opportunity to participate in the work of its international group of experts on artificial intelligence.  More information on the interweb on UNESCO’s website.

So, let’s go… not to the videotape, as Warner Wolf would say, but let’s go to questions.

**Questions and Answers

James Bays has a couple of questions for me.  Hey, why not?

Question:  Excellent.  Two different subjects, then, if I can.  Let’s start with… yes.  Can you…

Spokesman:  James?  Oh, sorry.  I had you on mute.  Go ahead, James.

Question:  Okay.  Sorry.  Suddenly thinking I was on mute.  Can you hear me?

Two different subjects, if I can.  Can I start first with the GERD (Great Ethiopian Renaissance) dam?  Would… there are… there were talks, and they’ve not gone anywhere.  They’ve broken down.  And now the dam, it seems, is swelling, but there is a dispute over whether, actually, it’s being filled or not.  The Ethiopian Water Minister is saying it’s a result of heavy rain.  Clearly, this is a problem that’s slowly becoming a crisis, and it’s not getting any better.  What is the Secretary‑General’s view?

Spokesman:  Well, he’s, obviously, following, I think, these discussions, these tripartite discussions, that are being held on the dam.  I think it’s important for the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, I think, to still… to seize on the opportunities that remain to bridge their remaining differences and to reach a mutually beneficial agreement for all of their peoples who depend on the Nile.

And I think, for us, it’s also very important to commend the role played by President [Cyril] Ramaphosa of South Africa, as Chair of the African Union, who’s been leading on the efforts to bring the parties together.

Question:  Does the Secretary‑General believe it’s important that Ethiopia does not start filling the dam while the negotiation process is still under way?

Spokesman:  Look, I think it’s… what exactly is going on in the dam, I think we know there are heavy rains.  I think there is discussion going on about exactly what is going on.  What is important is that all three countries find the right solution that will benefit all of their peoples.  As I said, the Nile is a source of so much that it is important that they agree together on a way forward.

Question:  And my second question is a very different part of the world, Belarus, where we have the two main opposition candidates, in August’s election, who are both being disqualified from standing.  And we have widespread protests in cities in Belarus in recent days.  What is the Secretary‑General’s view of that situation and the need for a free and fair election in Belarus?

Spokesman:  Look, there’s a need for… free and fair elections should take place everywhere.  We’ve, obviously, been watching what is going on in Belarus, notably the demonstrations that have taken place, all part of the run‑up to the elections, as you mentioned.

Whether it’s in Belarus or anywhere else, as we’ve said, people have a fundamental right to demonstrate peacefully and to uphold the rule of law.  So, we will continue to watch the situation, but I think it’s important that people be able to express themselves peacefully and that authorities show restraint and guarantee people’s rights to do so.

All right.  Abdelhamid, and then we’ll go to Majeed and then Alan.

Question:  Thank you.  I have two questions, Stéphane, one on Ethiopian dam, just to follow up with what James said.  The news said that they start filling the lake that feeds into the dam.  So, the Egypt news said also that appealed back to the Security Council.  Do you have any news about any possible meeting with the Security Council on the issue?

And my second question about Bahrain:  Last Monday, the appeal court upheld a death sentence of two young men, Mohammed Ramadhan and Husain Moosa, who were sentenced to death of… convicted of killing a policeman in 2014.  And Amnesty International said their confession were taken under pressure and torture.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

Spokesman:  I mean, our thought is the same thing we think every time people mention the death penalty, is that we stand firmly against it.  The use of the death penalty, if countries have it on their books, it should be put on hiatus.  But the Secretary‑General has been very clear over and over again against the use of the death penalty, wherever.

On the dam, I think, in terms… I mean, I’ve said what I’ve had to say to James on the Secretary‑General’s position, but, obviously, in terms of the Security Council, I think you have to ask them and ask Council members where things stand in terms of bringing that issue and the discussion within the Council on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.


Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  My question is about Yemen.  As you know, today, there’s a meeting, and I just want to ask about Secretary‑General’s thoughts or any updates you have about the situation of the oil tanker that is off the coast of Yemen that has a major risk of leaking possibly more than a million barrels.

And my question for you is, the Secretary‑General, has he been in contact at a high level to… with the parties on the ground?  And what are his thoughts about this situation?  Especially it’s risking the entire environment of the Red Sea.

Spokesman:  That’s exactly right, Majeed.  I think we’ve expressed over and over again our concern about the state of the tanker, the fear of an environmental, ecological disaster to not only the immediate coast but to the whole of the Red Sea and the impact it could have on maritime traffic in a heavily trafficked area.

And our… we are bringing our concern directly to the Security Council.  This afternoon, Mark Lowcock will focus his briefing on exactly that:  the tanker issue.

We, obviously… I’ve noted the progress in terms of Ansar Allah agreeing in writing to a UN team coming on board.  We hope to get that working within the next few weeks.  Everything takes time, sadly, but time is of the essence in this very issue.

Alan and then Toby.

Correspondent:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Perfect.

Question:  Yes.  Couple of Russian pranksters, pranksters, yeah, known as Vovan and Lexus, posing as the UNSG, made a call to re‑elected Polish President Andrzej Duda.  So, they congratulated him.  They discussed the World War II.  Actually, the conversation was about 11 minutes lasting, so… also, they proposed him to take back the Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Duda, in his comment, he replied, he said that he smelled a rat when they mentioned… when the SG mentioned the Polish alcohol Zubrówka.  So, can you comment on this somehow?

Spokesman:  Well, obviously, it was clear that it was not the Secretary‑General.  It’s not for us to comment.  I would say that I’m often accused of impersonating the Secretary‑General when I speak on his behalf, but I will leave it at that.


Correspondent:  Hi, Stéphane.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yep.

Question:  I just wanted to ask, when the leak was announced on the oil tanker in May, just as a follow‑up to Majeed’s question, did the UN take any specific action at that time?  And have… in terms of, like, a deployment, not just commentary, but specific… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  We’ve been trying to get on board this ship and have access to this ship for quite some time, but I would beg your patience, and we’ll send you Mark Lowcock’s remarks, which will give you the latest update.  But it is something that… it’s not something we’ve just been talking about.  It’s something that we’ve been trying to fix.

Correspondent:  Okay.  Thank you very much.

Spokesman:  All right.  Sad to see that this was an all‑male question panel today.  So, before… oh, Nizar, you will continue with the male questions but then… go ahead, Nizar.

Question:  Hi, Stéphane.  Stéphane, of course, I… just I expect that question… an answer to my questions in the past couple of days regarding the Syrian letter and the demand for a legal opinion on what’s going on there.

Spokesman:  I have nothing more to add.  I think I answered on the issue of the impact of agriculture on the fires.  I still need to check about the letter, but I will try to do that as quickly as possible.

Question:  How long do you expect it will take, I mean, to get an answer?

Spokesman:  I’ll try to work on it as quickly as possible.

Correspondent:  All right.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  And a beautiful garden, Nizar.

Correspondent:  Thank you.  Well, we are here for gardening these days, these time.  [laughter]

Spokesman:  I’m sure.  Okay.  Any other questions?  Let me just see if anybody is waving.  No.  No questions?

Then I bid you all a good afternoon, and we shall see each other mañana, if not earlier.  Bye-bye.

For information media. Not an official record.