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

Hello and good afternoon, everyone.  It’s nice to see you all virtually.  Please do me one favour:   mute your mics when you are not speaking.  Thanks.

**Cities

I want to flag that tonight, at one minute after midnight, the Secretary-General will release his policy brief on COVID-19 and the Urban World.  The report will give an overview of the stark impact the pandemic is having on cities.  It will demonstrate how the crisis has worsened existing inequalities, development deficits and has thrown the UN’s sustainable urbanization policies into question.  It will also give recommendations on how to tackle this inequality and ensure that vulnerable populations are protected.

**Afghanistan

A new UN report released today says that, even though there has been a drop in civilian casualties in Afghanistan, it remains one of the deadliest conflicts in the world for civilians.  There have been fewer [civilian] casualties in the first half of 2020 compared to the same time period last year — mainly due to the reduction in operations by international military forces and Da'esh in Khorasan.  However, the new report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said that there has been no reduction in civilian casualties caused by the Taliban and Afghan national security forces.  The Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Deborah Lyons, urges the parties to reflect on the harm they are causing to the Afghan people and to take decisive action to stop the carnage and get to the negotiating table.

Also in Afghanistan, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that there is a deteriorating humanitarian situation amid rising cases of COVID-19 and funding deficits for the country’s humanitarian response plan.  There have been more than 36,000 confirmed cases in the country, and 1,269 deaths due to the virus.  As the testing capacity and the health system in Afghanistan is limited, these numbers very likely do not reflect the true severity of the outbreak.  So far, less than one quarter of Afghanistan’s 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan is funded, compared to 27 per cent this time last year.  Without urgent funding, life-saving activities, which include the COVID-19 response, will be delayed and lives will be lost.

**Security Council

This afternoon, the Security Council will hold a closed session by video teleconference to discuss the recent political developments in Mali, as well as mediation efforts.  On the UN side, members of the Council will be briefed by the Head of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), Mahamat Saleh Annadif.

**Central African Republic

We have an update from the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), where the joint operation named “A la Londo” is making progress against the 3R armed group.  Yesterday, UN peacekeepers took control of the town of Besson from the armed group.  Last week, UN and Central African forces also regained control of the towns of Niem and Gedze.  The Head of MINUSCA, Mankeur Ndiaye, reiterated his commitment to continue the operation until the surrender of the 3R armed group and until the population of the area can live in peace.

And staying in the Central African Republic, the UN Mission continues to support the country’s pandemic response with logistical and operational support through what are called “quick impact projects”.  The Mission delivered medical equipment and personal protective gear, freezers, chlorine and more.  Schools received tables, benches and teaching materials, while the Coordination of Islamic Women of Ouaka was given cassava mills to help them process cassava for commercial purposes.  MINUSCA also supported the equipment of a training room for young people in Boeing-Bimbo, in the Ouaka Prefecture, which will help facilitate social cohesion and peaceful cohabitation between communities.

**South Sudan

And from South Sudan, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) continues to raise awareness about COVID-19.  The Mission is helping to provide reliable information to people in Basukangbi, a remote village with no communications network, in Western Equatoria State.  Peacekeepers spoke with local community leaders and others on the dangers of COVID-19 and how they can keep themselves and others safe.  The UN Mission also helped to construct a road that will allow people to reduce the amount of travel time to the nearest town to sell their produce and buy essential supplies for their families.

**COVID-19 — Brazil

In Brazil, where there are now nearly 2.4 million confirmed cases and more than 86,000 deaths due to COVID-19, the UN team, led by Resident Coordinator Niky Fabiancic, is working with national and local authorities to address the immediate health needs and curb other impacts of the pandemic.  The team is focusing specifically on addressing these impacts in the Amazon region to protect indigenous peoples and vulnerable communities.  The International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) mobile health units are assisting refugees and migrants.  IOM and local partners also delivered 700 hygiene kits, furniture and appliances to poor families, including those coming from Venezuela.  For its part, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) worked with 300 girls from vulnerable settings and over 30 public servants to tailor public policies and services seeking to protect and empower girls during the pandemic.  UNICEF also delivered more than 7,000 hygiene kits to Afro‑Brazilian communities in the north.  In addition, UN agencies are supporting local authorities to relocate nearly 160 Warao indigenous people to a new permanent shelter.

**Bangladesh

We have an update on the floods in Bangladesh:   Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that at least 3.3 million people are currently affected, with nearly one quarter of the country being flooded, according to an assessment just completed by the Government and aid partners.  Some 40 per cent of those affected are children, with nearly half of the 93 people who have died being children.  The flooding has damaged housing and infrastructure, including dams, water wells, hygiene facilities and more than 1,900 schools.  It has also severely disrupted health‑care services in many areas.  Livelihoods, local markets, crops, livestock and fisheries have also been severely affected, which our humanitarian colleagues warn could also lead to increased food insecurity.  Humanitarian partners are responding, in coordination with the Government of Bangladesh.

**United Nations Truce Supervision Organization

And we have an update on the investigation into a video involving staff members of the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO).  A third male international staff member who was in the UN vehicle in Tel Aviv has also been identified as having engaged in alleged misconduct.  The staff member has been placed on Administrative Leave without Pay, pending the results and conclusion of the ongoing Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) investigation.

**World Hepatitis Day

Ahead of World Hepatitis Day, which is marked tomorrow, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that the proportion of children under five years of age chronically infected with hepatitis B dropped to just under 1 per cent in 2019.  This is down from around 5 per cent in the pre-vaccine era, which is the period between the 1980s and the early 2000s.  WHO notes that this marks the achievement of one of the milestone targets to eliminate viral hepatitis in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  On World Hepatitis Day 2020, WHO is calling for united and stepped-up action to build on this achievement.  Globally, more than 250 million people are living with chronic hepatitis B and infants are especially vulnerable.

**Briefing Tomorrow

And tomorrow, I will be joined by Selwin Hart, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Climate Action and Assistant Secretary-General of the Climate Action Team.  He will brief you on the launch of the Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change and other efforts to address climate change as the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic.  That is all I have for notes now and I'm free to take up any questions for you.  For those of you who have questions, please mention them in the chat and let's see what you've got.  Waiting to see whether there are any hands raised.  Hold on.  I think there is a question.  Evelyn Leopold has a question.  So, it will be Evelyn first, then Iftikhar.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Okay, thank you.  Do you have anything on the fighting in Darfur?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes.  I believe what we can say about that, at this stage, our humanitarian colleagues are examining reports of displacement in Darfur, we don't have any details yet on this, but we will be in touch and try to provide some further information as we get those.  And next, Iftikhar.

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  The New York Times is reporting that former Iran President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad wrote a letter to the Saudi Crown Prince and the Secretary‑General and the Houthis on offering ideas to resolve the Yemen war.  Your colleague, Stéphane [Dujarric], was quoted as saying that he had no knowledge about this letter.  Do you… has the Secretary‑General now received this letter?

Deputy Spokesman:  We haven't received a letter yet on this.  Obviously, we appreciate the efforts of any and all of the parties in the region to try to contribute positively to a solution in Yemen.  At the same time, as you know, our envoy, Martin Griffiths, is focused on his own work with the respective parties.  And we encourage everyone, all Governments, to be supportive of Mr. Griffiths as he goes about those tasks.  Okay, James Bays?

Question:  Pressing my unmuting.  You can hear me now, Farhan, I'm good?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes.

Question:  So, clashes involving Hizbullah and Israeli troops, what is the UN's response to this?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, on that, what I can tell you is that — hold on one second, is that Major General Stefano Del Col, who has been the force commander of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), is in contact with both parties to assess the situation and decrease tension.  And he advocates… he urges maximum restraint at this time.  And of course, we share that call with Major General Del Col.

Question:  Can I just have a related follow‑up?  Clearly, UNIFIL's mandate is being… is due to be negotiated in the next few weeks, and it's up for renewal in August.  What is the Secretary‑General's view on the mandate and how perhaps it should change?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, the Secretary‑General's views about the work of UNIFIL are shared in his periodic reports to the Security Council, so I would just refer you to those.  As to whether any further changes are needed, we will follow whatever guidance we get from the members of the Security Council.  And we are aware they are discussing this matter.  Okay, Ibtisam, you are next.

Correspondent:  Thanks, Farhan.  I have first a question about Yemen, if you have any updates on the humanitarian front and then I have another question.  Thanks.

Deputy Spokesman:  We've gotten periodic updates on Yemen, but I don't have one as of today.  But you're aware of the concerns that we've had, including the fact that we are worried about the potential spread of COVID‑19 throughout the country.  And so, we have been working with the authorities to make sure we can deal with the situation and those concerns remain.

Question:  A follow‑up on… sorry?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yeah, sure.  The floor is yours.

Question:  So I have a follow‑up on Yemen.  So, you have talked about the problem that you have shortage of money and that you don't have enough donor aid.  My question to you is, and it has to do also with the fact that this year, compared to last year, the Saudis and the Emiratis are not donating as much as they did last year.  My question to you is do you think the fact that the Secretary‑General let the Saudi‑led coalition and the Saudis off the hook in his report about the children and armed conflict, did not put ones… leading to the fact that they don't feel the pressure to contribute more to humanitarian aid or even to be under any pressure to… yeah?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, I think that's a bit speculative.  From our standpoint we don't believe that there should be and there is any connection between the work of the Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict and our overall humanitarian efforts.  And there shouldn't be any such connection.  Certainly, she writes these reports and bases her evaluations on the result of her own work and that is separate and apart from what countries contribute to our humanitarian efforts.

Question:  I mean, yeah, but in her report, you didn't let them off the hook.  I mean, the Secretary‑General did not add them to his list and of countries that are violating children and armed conflict.  Do you think that this contributed to make them feel that they are not under pressure anyway anymore to… yeah?

Deputy Spokesman:  I wouldn't want to speculate on what this or that Government feels is in their interest.  We don't do that work.  What I'm saying is that the work we do on children and armed conflict is done independently of whatever our other expectations from Governments on, for example, humanitarian contributions are.

Question:  So, what is your message to the countries that are not contributing enough to aid the Yemenis?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, we want all countries to contribute.  Our standard message for months has been that if we do not get the money we need in Yemen, we will have to cut back on programmes.  And this is at a time when the Yemeni people need it the most and when they are facing a new threat from the pandemic that could be extremely destructive if we can't counter it.  And now over to Nizar Abboud.

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  Regarding the alleged clashes in South Lebanon in the UNIFIL area, do you have any UNIFIL reports about what has happened?  Because most of the reports came from Israel and they were conflicting.  Some said that they have obliterated a whole Hizbullah cell and then they said the cell pulled out from Israel and then there were definitely videos shown, showing that the Israelis have shelled Mount Hermon and Hebbariye and destroyed a house in Hebbariye so what is the report about that?

Deputy Spokesman:  Regarding that, the basic point is that we are in touch with both parties, and again, like I said, Major General Del Col is calling for maximum restraint.  We are not going to give a point‑by‑point description of events on the ground, but UNIFIL is there and it is working assiduously to make sure that the situation will be calm and that tensions will be decreased.  And with that, Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you Farhan.  I have a question in South Lebanon.  And before the skirmishes of today, the last 48 hours, Israel violated the airspace of Lebanon 29 times.  Had the UN spoken about these violations, it could have calmed things down, but being the UN is silent about the repeated Israeli violation of the airspace of Lebanon, that maybe encouraged this situation to go out of hand and escalate.  Why was the UN silent on 29 violations in about 48 hours, before the current state of affairs?

Deputy Spokesman:  As you're aware, UNIFIL monitors all violations in its area of responsibility and reports on them to the Security Council.  And it also regularly is in touch with both parties to make sure, once there are violations, that the matters are resolved.  So, they are very active on this particular front.  It's not about a public announcement by them each time, but certainly they do keep the Council informed and they keep the parties informed.

Question:  I have a second question, Farhan?  We ask repeatedly Stéphane and yourselves about the body of Ahmed Erekat, who was killed by Israel and his body is still kept under Israeli control for about now a month.  And we asked Stéphane and he said I will come back to you with a language about keeping the Palestinian bodies under Israeli control for a long time.  And we asked again and he said, oh, I will come back with some language, I will come back with some language.  And so far, he didn't come back with anything.  Can you explain what is the position of the Secretary‑General of those young Palestinians who are killed and their bodies are kept by Israel for a long time?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, we are monitoring this situation, but I would refer you, our colleagues from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) do have a comment and they have also urged this issue to be resolved.  They do not believe that bodies should be held.  So, for further information on that, I would just refer you to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who have the lead on this particular issue.  And with this, Nabil?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  Back to UNIFIL, so you confirmed that UNIFIL is deployed on the ground where the clashes are taking place in Shebaa Farms.  Can you confirm that?

Deputy Spokesman:  No.  I'm not saying that UNIFIL is deployed there.  I'm saying that UNIFIL has been in touch with the parties and in particular the force commander, Major General Stefano Del Col, has been in contact.  So UNIFIL, including the Force Commander, are working to reduce tensions; that is as much as I'm going to say on that at this time.

Question:  Okay, and can you remind us, please, because the recommendations of the Secretary‑General are, of course, clear in his latest report; but we never had them on camera.  So, about the freedom of movement, can you please remind us what are the main elements that he recommended?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, I'd refer you to the report for the whole thing; but, basically, the larger point that he is making is that the UN Interim Force in Lebanon needs to be able to have the freedom of movement to go about its scheduled task in its area of operations, and this is something we are pressing with all parties.

Question:  And I have a question on Yemen.  It seems that Mr. Griffiths, or this is what I heard from some diplomats, that Mr. Griffiths did not receive a positive response from the Yemeni Government on his latest efforts to resume talks.  Although some sources say that the coalition is on board, the Houthis are on board, but not the Yemeni Government.  Do you have a message on this point, in particular?

Deputy Spokesman:  We don't give blow‑by‑blow descriptions of our diplomatic efforts.  As you know, Mr. Griffiths has been in touch with the Government of Yemen and with Ansar Allah and we've mentioned from time to time his discussions.  And as you know, he has also spoken to the Security Council about his efforts.  He remains hopeful that he can make progress on this issue, and we will leave the matter in his hands.  And we will leave it at that for now.  Yes, Benny Avni?

Correspondent:  Yes, I don't understand why chat is unavailable for telepresence users, that appears on my… that is a message that appears and I don't understand that.

Deputy Spokesman:  I saw your message in chat, so whatever it's telling you… I actually have a large number of you on chat today, so I'm thrilled with the amount of communications I'm getting.

Question:  Okay.  Excellent.  So UNIFIL has 10,000 troops on the ground or peacekeepers on the ground and you're telling me that UNIFIL can't confirm or deny that something happened?  Because the Israeli side describes an event and Hizbullah just issued just now a statement that nothing happened.  So, you can tell me, can you at least say if something happened?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, I've told you what I've said so far and I will stick to it.

Correspondent:  No.  You haven’t said whether something happened or not.

Deputy Spokesman:  I said that we are aware of developments, and as a result of that, Major General Del Col has been in touch with the parties.  He is urging maximum restraint and we are doing what we can to reduce any tensions.

Question:  Farhan, when you say “aware of developments”, does that mean something happened — there were skirmishes or exchange of fire as the Israelis say or nothing happened as Hizbullah just said now?

Deputy Spokesman:  Whenever there [are] events, there is a certain amount of confusion on the ground about what has happened.  I'm not going to give you the details from here while it's worked out, but, certainly, he is in touch with both parties and is working out what has happened and how it can be resolved so that everything can be restored to calm.

Question:  Isn't UNIFIL's role to at least observe and tell us what happened?

Deputy Spokesman:  I'm sure that they will report back on what has happened over the course of the day in due course.  Stephano Vaccaro?

Question:  Thank you very much, Farhan.  I asked a question last week of the death of the UN volunteer, Mario Paciolla, in Colombia.  And at that time, Stéphane say that, you know, he did the general, but then he said to contact the Mission directly in Colombia.  I did and they were very helpful, you know, but they didn't have any news.  But, in the meantime, a lot of things happened because one journalist colleague of Paciolla, Claudia Duque, she is a Colombian journalist, she just published that she said that Mario told her that the UN Mission, somebody in the UN Mission was accusing him of being a spy.  And while he was laughing about it, but, at the same time he was contact with his mother, saying that he was this trouble.  Now, because it was said at the beginning said there was a suicide, what happened in end of July, instead even the mayor said that in his own town he now wants and is asking for investigation.  My question at this point is what the UN… I don't want to talk any more about the UN Mission in Colombia, but what the UN mission, what the UN had… what at the UN Headquarters and what the Secretary‑General knows about it and what he wants now at this point to know about what happened in Colombia with Mario Paciolla's death?

Deputy Spokesman:  Okay, what I can tell you on this is we were informed by the Mission about the death on 15 July of the UN volunteer, Mr. Paciolla.  The Mission sent its heartfelt condolences and solidarity to his family, his friends and his colleagues.  The UN Mission in Colombia is conducting an internal investigation and is closely following the investigations of the Colombian authorities to determine the cause of his death.  So that is what we have from them on this.

Question:  Just that, a quick follow‑up, because it was going on autopsy, and I think it already happened, and the result of this autopsy should be out, I mean, not public, but at least, maybe, the UN was informed of what are the results; can you share any news about the autopsy that was done on Mario Paciolla's body?

Deputy Spokesman:  I believe with that, you know, as is the case in many countries, the work being done there is by the Colombian authorities, so you would need to be in touch with them about the initial look into his internal…

Question:  The UN at this moment that we are talking doesn't know any result of those?

Deputy Spokesman:  No, no, no, the Mission in Colombia is in touch, including with the authorities, but if you want the first‑hand information, you would need to get that from the authorities in Colombia.  Okay, thanks.  Nizar?

Correspondent:  Thank you, Farhan.  It's disappointing, I mean, that UNIFIL did not come up with anything about this.  The news from Lebanon are contradictory totally and the Israelis’ news are contradictory.  I'm also disappointed that I was not given a follow‑up when I first asked my question.

Deputy Spokesman:  You were given a follow‑up right now.

Question:  But not unlike any other one.  I was denied that at the time.  If the Israelis have been bombarding Shebaa Farms area and Hebbariye and this was visible on our television, like… how come they did not and UNIFIL did not report about that immediately?  Why they are silent about it?

Deputy Spokesman:  We are not silent.  I've told you exactly what Mr. Del Col said, what General Del Col said and what he is doing.  It's not a question of silence.  There are differing accounts.  And I'm not going to say from this desk — not podium, I guess — what happened just yet.  The details are being clarified as we speak.  And at this stage, like I said, our call is for maximum restraint from the parties and we are doing what we can to be sure the tensions will be reduced.  Okay.  Questions now from Toby Burns.

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  I had some computer trouble this morning.  Can you hear me okay?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yeah, I can.

Question:  Thanks.  What is the UN's position on China's construction of manmade islands in the South China sea?

Deputy Spokesman:  I don't believe we have a comment on this.  We know that different countries are trying to resolve this and we hope that they will work this out.

Question:  The tensions have increased pretty steadily over the last few weeks on this issue.  Has the UN's position developed or changed?  Or…

Deputy Spokesman:  At this stage, we are monitoring.  There is nothing to say about this, one way or another.  But, we are aware that different countries are trying to work things out bilaterally.  Dulcie, do you have a question? Dulcie?  Okay, Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan, again.  I want to inquire about the situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, is there any development, is the UN involved, has the Security Council been briefed about the latest clashes in the Nagorno-Karabakh area?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, you've heard what we had to say last week and that is basically where we stand on this.  I don't have anything new to say since what Stéphane told you last week about this.

Question:  Was there any initiative by the Secretary‑General to contact the parties or to call for restraint or any other?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, we have called for restraint, and you've seen what we said when Stéphane was talking about this at the briefings last week.  And that is where we stand.  And, with that, I think, unless there is any further question, I wish you all a good afternoon and I'll see you tomorrow.  Bye.

For information media. Not an official record.