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20 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.

Good afternoon.  Happy Monday — yes, Monday, why not?  Nice to see you back after a busy week and a busy weekend, for some of us.  I hope you were all able to catch the Secretary-General’s lecture for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and I will talk about that in a bit.

**Mandela Day

But, also staying on the Mandela topic, the Secretary-General this morning spoke at the General Assembly’s commemoration of Nelson Mandela Day.  The Secretary-General extended his warmest congratulations to the 2020 laureates of the UN Nelson Mandela Prize:  Ms. Marianna Vardinoyannis of Greece and Dr. Morissana Kouyate of Guinea.  The Secretary-General said that both are recognized for their long-standing commitment to the service of humanity in the areas of human rights, access to health care, and the empowerment of women and girls and the most vulnerable in society.  The Secretary-General recalled that Nelson Mandela had said:  “As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”  Similarly, the Secretary-General added, high and rising levels of inequality threaten our well-being and our future.  Inequality damages everyone.  The answer, he said, lies in a new social contract — which is something that he had presented on Saturday when he delivered the Nelson Mandela lecture.  A new social contract within societies will enable young people to live in dignity, he asserted.  It will ensure that women have the same prospects and opportunities as men.  And it will protect the sick, the vulnerable, and minorities of all kinds.

In his lecture on Saturday to the Foundation, the Secretary-General said that the New Social Contract must integrate employment, sustainable development and social protection, based on equal rights and opportunities for all.  He warned that the pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of our world.  It has laid bare risks that we have ignored for decades:  inadequate health systems; gaps in social protection; structural inequalities; environmental degradation; and the climate crisis.  And he said that COVID-19 has been likened to an X-ray, revealing fractures in the skeleton of the societies we have built.  The Secretary-General, in his lecture, said that COVID-19 is a human tragedy, but it has also created a generational opportunity — an opportunity to build back a more equal and sustainable world.  His remarks were made available to you in all UN working languages over the weekend.

**Azerbaijan/Armenia

I also want to tell you that the Secretary-General is following with deep concern the current tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia.  He calls for maximum restraint as a full conflict between these two countries would be disastrous.

**Security Council

This morning, the Security Council held a closed meeting over video conference on the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).  Council members were briefed by Elizabeth Spehar, the Special Representative and Head of the UN Mission there.

**Yemen

And turning to Yemen, our humanitarian colleagues report that as of today, the World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed 1,610 cases of COVID-19, including 445 deaths.  The fatality rate is alarmingly high at over 27 per cent — that’s five times the global average.  Actual infection numbers are likely to be much higher, as testing materials are in short supply.  Despite severe funding gaps, aid agencies are racing to scale up the pandemic response.  More than 10,000 metric tons of medical equipment, testing kits and medicine have been transported into Yemen, with some 2,000 more in the pipeline.  Beyond the 642,000 personal protective equipment items that are currently available in the country, an additional 1.7 million assorted such items are to arrive this week.  We, along with our partners are urgently expanding hospital capacity in key population centres.  This includes establishing 21 new intensive care units in COVID‑designated hospitals, adding to 38 existing intensive care units.  Aid agencies require $385 million in funding to support COVID-19 operations, including $304 million for health.  As of today, the operation has received only $55 million.  That’s only 14 per cent of what we actually need.

**Guatemala

And today I have an update for you about the work our colleagues are doing to address the pandemic in Guatemala.  There are more than 38,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,400 deaths.  The UN team, led by Resident Coordinator Rebeca Arias, is investing $1 million from the Secretary-General’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Trust Fund for immediate health and socioeconomic needs, focusing on the most vulnerable people.  With these funds, the United Nations has trained front‑line health‑care workers and is providing food and mental health support for women.  We are also helping the Government with people returning to Guatemala from Mexico and the United States, identifying those who have special protection needs.  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is also screening and counselling these returnees and has provided beds, diapers and other supplies.  The UN team is also helping to assess the social and economic impacts of the pandemic.  With about half of all Guatemalan households depending on remittances, the impact of drastic reduction of these payments is especially worrying.

**Sudan

And in Sudan, we along with our humanitarian partners, in support of the Transitional Government, yesterday launched a supplement to the 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan to respond to help millions of people affected by the health and humanitarian consequences of COVID-19.  With the pandemic having triggered a further economic slowdown, more than $280 million is urgently needed to help the Government provide aid to more than 6.7 million Sudanese people.  Our humanitarian colleagues say that more than 9.6 million people — which is nearly a quarter of the entire population — are facing severe hunger, the highest figure ever recorded in Sudan.  The UN, along with our partners, are providing COVID-19 testing kits and other medical supplies.  We have trained more than 1,600 health workers, distributed hygiene kits to nearly half a million people, and reached over 25 million people with campaigns to raise awareness and prevent transmissions.  At least 2.8 million people were reached with food assistance in Sudan in May alone.

**Peacekeeping Missions

And our peacekeeping missions are also continuing to help respond to the pandemic.  The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) organized an awareness campaign in Bangui with non-governmental organizations and the Ministry for the Advancement of Women to address gender-based violence and help protect marginalized groups from COVID‑19.  The goal of the campaign is to bring about a large‑scale behaviour change against sexual abuse and violence.  And in South Sudan, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is helping to train community leaders in Upper Nile State on how to prevent the spread of the virus.  The mission is also distributing leaflets, as well as hundreds of face masks.

**India/Nepal Floods

And I have an update on the floods in Asia that we told you about last week.  Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that nearly 4 million people were displaced in the state of Assam in India and neighbouring Nepal due to heavy flooding from monsoon rains, with the death toll at 189.  The United Nations stands ready to support the Government of India if required.  And in Nepal, authorities have urged people living along riverbanks and low-land areas in the Terai region to move to safe sites due to the possibility of floods.  Access is the biggest challenge, with search-and-rescue efforts being hampered by landslides in remote areas.  The World Food Programme (WFP) is working on reaching impacted communities, with helicopters being the only viable option at present.  We stand ready, of course, to provide additional humanitarian support to the most vulnerable communities in Nepal.

**African Swine Fever

Today the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health launched a joint initiative for the Global Control of African swine fever.  According to FAO, in recent years, African Swine Fever has become a major crisis for the pork industry, currently affecting several countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and Europe.  It has caused massive losses in pig populations, with drastic economic consequences.  The initiative aims to improve the capability of countries to control the disease and facilitate business continuity, ensuring safe production and trade to protect food systems.  Pork is the most consumed meat in the world, representing 35.6 per cent of global meat consumption.

**Locusts

And our friends in Geneva at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) today said that locusts continue to be a serious threat to food security in parts of East Africa, India and Pakistan as a result of changing climate conditions that can be linked to human activity.  WMO said that extreme weather events and climatic changes such as increases in temperature and rainfall over desert areas, and the strong winds associated with tropical cyclones, provide a new environment for pest breeding, development and migration.  WMO is working with FAO by providing data on the desert locust life cycle and on weather and climate conditions in the impacted areas.

**International Chess Day

And today, to celebrate the first International Chess Day, a high-level virtual event named “Chess for Recovering Better” brought together players, the UN, Government officials, Permanent Missions in New York, representatives of civil society and academia.  The meeting provided a platform to discuss the unique capabilities leveraged by chess in supporting social cohesion, equality and inclusion.  The focus was the COVID-19 response and recovery efforts for building back better.  While the pandemic has forced most gaming and sports activities to scale down, chess has demonstrated remarkable resilience, adaptability and a very strong convening power in the time of the pandemic.  Over the past few months, the overall interest in chess is reported to have doubled, with more players than ever coming together to participate in chess events that are being increasingly held on online platforms.

**Briefing Tomorrow

Tomorrow we are glad to be joined by Reem Abaza, the Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly.

**Financial Contribution

And last, but not least, we welcome Bangladesh to the fully paid-up club.  Thanks to their payment to the regular budget, there are now 105 fully paid‑up Member States.  So, let me get ready to answer the questions from you, at least try to answer them.  I think, bear with me, Toby, you had a question, so go ahead, Toby.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, sir.

Question:  Could you just talk a little bit more about phase one reopening, please?  And what is different today, specifically?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Well, you know, I don't think you will see anything much different today.  It's really just kind of a wrapping up of a slow and very careful return to Headquarters.  As you… for some of you who have been in the building, you can already see that we have put up the correct signage to make sure people social distance and stay safe, whether in elevators or in other public spaces.  Basically, I think we have said, phase one means that no more than 400 people should be in Headquarters at any given day.  Currently, we have about 200 to 300 UN staff and delegates who have been coming in, including those who handle security, maintenance and cleaning.  So, the moving up of the ceiling to 400 will be quite small and not really visible.  And what happens really beyond phase one on the business requirement of our offices, as well as personal circumstances for individual staff members, phase two will be rolled out gradually.  Okay, let's see.  Iftikhar, I can actually get a message from you, so that is something new and I'm happy to take your questions.

Question:  Thank you.  Stéphane, can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, sir.

Question:  You talked about WMO's remarks about resurgence of locust activity.  Are WFP and FAO geared up to meet the situation that comes up?

Spokesman:  Yeah.  I mean, this is something that our colleagues in Rome or the FAO, I think, have been talking about quite a bit for the last few months.  They are working locally with farmers, with those who are most impacted in different parts of the world, and so is WFP.  I mean, this is something that has been not just on our radar but really the forefront of many of our actions in the impacted areas.

Correspondent:  No, I said that they did take action and control of the situation, but this is a new activity which is been predicted.

Spokesman:  Yes.  And they are obviously following this very closely.  Maria from TASS and then Stefano.

Question:  Yeah.  Thank you, Stéphane.  So, it's just a small follow‑up on Armenia and Azerbaijan, the same question I asked you last week, if Secretary‑General contacted the missions of Armenia and Azerbaijan here in New York or the officials in the countries?

Spokesman:  Contacts being led by our colleagues in the Department of Political Affairs are being had at various levels and with various parties at this point.  Stefano Vaccara?

Question:  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, I can.

Question:  Very good.  Yes, Stéphane, thank you.  Do you have any news about this Italian volunteer working for the UN in Colombia?  It was found that the Colombian authorities say there was suicide.  The family in Italy and also some authority in the UN, I think, is investigating.  This is my question:  Is the UN investigating his death?

Spokesman:  I don't know.  We would have to check with our country office in Colombia.  I'm… we obviously are extremely saddened by the death of the UN volunteer and send our condolences to the families, but I'd have to check with the office in Colombia.

Question:  Mario Paciolla is his name.  Apparently, from the information we have from the family, he had already planned to come back to Italy actually today and he had called the family two days before, saying that he was worried that there was something going on, he felt threatened, so knowing this information, do you…?

Spokesman:  You know more than I do, Stefano, so let me check with the country office in Colombia and we will get back to you.  [He later noted that the UN Mission in Colombia said that it is conducting an internal investigation and closely following the investigations of the Colombian authorities to determine the cause of death.]  All right.  Any other questions?  Abdelhamid, I see you waving and Evelyn.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  As we speak, the Egyptian Parliament is meeting now to authorize President [Abdelfattah al‑]Sisi and the Egyptian Army to intervene in Libya.  Are you following the situation that we see in Egypt and Libya and the possible intervention by military force and the already complex issue in view of Libya?  Do you have any reaction?

Spokesman:  We are obviously following this extremely closely.  All of these developments are of great concern.  I think there is an alarming mobilization of forces around Sirte, which in itself endangers the lives of civilians — I mean, more than 125,000 civilians as far as the numbers that we had.  So, our mission… Stephane Williams is continuing her diplomatic work.  She met yesterday with the Algerian President, Dr. Abdelmadjid Tebboune, and other officials in Algiers to discuss the situation.  I think Algeria is making positive efforts to urge Libyan parties to end the violence.  And she thanked them for that and for Algiers’ support for the resumption of the Libyan‑led political process under UN auspices.  What is clear, and we have been saying, I've been saying it from this podium, the Secretary‑General has said it, Ms. Williams has been saying it over and over again — there is no military solution to the current crisis in Libya.  And there must be an immediate ceasefire within the framework of the UNSMIL [United Nations Support Mission in Libya]‑facilitated 5+5 Joint Military Commission.  Evelyn?

Question:  Yes.  Hi, Steph.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, ma'am.

Question:  Good afternoon.  You mentioned Guatemala, then all the activity that was going on there against the virus.  Guatemala is one of these countries where women and men and children have been trying to leave because of fear of killing, a fear of abuse and running to the US border.  Can the UN deal with this?  How can the UN deal with this?

Spokesman:  We are in Guatemala supporting the Government.  I think, as I mentioned, UNHCR and other parts of the UN family are helping screen the most vulnerable people, making sure they have access to the most basic necessities.  And so, we are doing what we can, hand in hand with the Government, in trying to support the most vulnerable population in Guatemala.  All right.  Glad to leave you all speechless.  Nice to see Liling back on the screen.  Welcome back.  And Ibtisam, you are either waving good‑bye or you have a question.  You are waving good‑bye?

Correspondent:  Saying hi and bye.

Spokesman:  Okay.

Question:  No, I'm saying hi.  And I have two questions.  So, the first one is a follow‑up to Abdelhamid's question on Egypt and the vote in the Parliament.  Did anyone from the SG office contact Mr. President al-Sisi, because this is a very serious issue?  And the second question is that I asked you last week about Palestine and the Israeli keeping Palestinian bodies?

Spokesman:  On that I owe you language.  And I'm sorry I don't have it today.  On Libya, I think… whether it's the Egyptian authorities or any other country that has an influence over the parties in Libya, I think they all know our position.  It's been made clear to them privately.  It's been made clear publicly.  And our Mission there, led by Stephane Williams, has been in constant touch with all the relevant parties to make sure they understand our point, which is, to put it simply, that there is no military solution to this conflict, that this build‑up of forces around Sirte is worrying and just puts more Libyan civilians at risk.

Correspondent:  Yeah.  I have a follow‑up here, but because it is more than just the parties who have influence on parties to the conflict.  We are talking about authorizing an operation.  We are talking about something in there, and I found it a little bit alarming there seems to be, if I got you right, there is no… there was no contact specifically regarding this issue from your office or your Mission’s… the office in Libya to the Egyptian authorities to talk about specifically this issue.

Spokesman:  Contacts have been had with the Egyptian authorities.  As I say, we are continuing to urge countries to help the Libyans agree on a lasting ceasefire rather than adding oil to the fire.  Okay.  Thank you all.  We shall see you mañana.  Why not, unless we have better things to do.

For information media. Not an official record.