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29 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.

Good afternoon, everyone.  We’re on the downhill side of a shortened week today.

**COVID-19 — South-East Asia

Just after midnight, we will publish the Secretary-General’s Policy Brief, which examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on South-East Asia, including how Governments have acted swiftly to battle the pandemic and avoid its worst effects.  It will also spotlight how COVID-19 has highlighted deep inequalities, shortfalls in governance and the imperative for a sustainable development pathway.

**Syria

Mark Lowcock, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefed the Security Council this morning on Syria.  He told Council members that the Syrian economy, devastated by nearly a decade of conflict, has entered a period of extreme fragility.  For the year as a whole, he said, the economy is expected to contract by more than 7 per cent.  He warned that food prices are 240 per cent higher than in June last year, so families across the country can no longer afford the very basics.  Some 9.3 million people are food insecure, he said, while more than 2 million more are at risk of becoming food insecure.  Mr. Lowcock added that the ceasefire reached in March in the north-west between the Russian Federation and Turkey is largely holding, but some air and ground-based strikes have been reported in recent weeks.  The Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria, with a funding requirement of $3.4 billion in 2020, is 32 per cent funded halfway through the year.

**Iraq

A one-month campaign, which began on 29 June, targeted more than 6 million people in 10 heavily populated and COVID-19-affected districts in Baghdad with health promotion and awareness messages.  Its purpose was to limit transmission of the virus, following an increase in the number of cases reported in Iraq.  The campaign, dubbed "Your Health Is Important", was conducted in each of the 10 districts for a period of three days.  It will now be extended to Sulaymaniyah, Basra, Missan, Thi Qar and Wasit on 9 August and will target areas reporting a high number of cases.  There is more information from the World Health Organization (WHO).

**Latin America

The World Food Programme (WFP) today said that the relentless rise of hunger, deepening inequality and an active hurricane season are threatening the people of Latin America and the Caribbean and may have far-reaching consequences unless swift action is taken.  Latin America has become the region most affected by the virus, accounting for over a quarter of the world’s cases.  WFP said the region is set to see a 269 per cent rise in the number of people facing severe food insecurity, bringing the total to 16 million people not knowing where their next meal is coming from in the coming months, up from 4.3 million last year.  From its regional humanitarian hub in Panama, WFP is supporting the logistics for the pandemic response, transporting humanitarian and health cargo to the front lines.  WFP is providing food rations for children no longer able to attend schools, and vouchers and cash so people can shop at local stores.  It is also helping Governments strengthen and expand national safety‑net programmes.

**Nigeria

And in Nigeria, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that the crisis in the north-east region, now in its eleventh year, shows no sign of abating, with fighting and attacks escalating in recent months.  Following attacks by armed groups and clashes with Government forces, more than 40,000 people have been newly displaced to already-congested camps and host communities in May and June alone across Borno, Adamawa and Yobe States.  Worsening insecurity has also directly affected aid operations, with three aid workers killed and a UN helicopter hit and damaged by bullets in Borno State earlier this month.  With 1.8 million people internally displaced, the protection of civilians remains a major concern for the UN, and our humanitarian colleagues say that there have been gross violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law.  The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated vulnerabilities and needs across northeast Nigeria, with 10.6 million people now in need of assistance, up from 7.9 million in January.  Less than 30 per cent of the more than $1 billion of the required humanitarian funding for 2020 has been received so far.

**Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

A new report, released today by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Danish Refugee Council, details how most people taking irregular journeys between West and East Africa and Africa’s Mediterranean Coast suffer or witness unspeakable brutality at the hands of smugglers, traffickers, militias and in some cases, even State officials.  Data from the report, titled “On this journey, no one cares if you live or die”, suggests that a minimum of 1,750 people died on these journeys in 2018 and 2019, making it one of the deadliest routes for refugees and migrants in the world.  These deaths are in addition to the thousands who have died or gone missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe after reaching north African shores.  UNHCR is calling for greater efforts, as well as more cooperation between States, to strengthen the protection of people travelling these routes and to provide credible, legal alternatives to these dangerous and desperate journeys.  They are also calling for accountability and greater efforts to dismantle smugglers’ networks.

**Somalia

From Somalia, a new joint analysis by WHO and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says that, by the end of June, some 108,000 children under the age of one might have missed out on their first measles and other vaccines due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The agencies warn that, in the long term, this could translate to children living compromised lives, with low immunity, and becoming more prone to catching and spreading infectious diseases.  You can read more about this online.

**Bangladesh

We wanted to update you on the flooding in Bangladesh, where our humanitarian colleagues tell us that heavy monsoon rains have affected some 4.7 million people, including nearly 2 million children.  These floods are forecast to be the longest since 1998, inundating nearly a quarter of the country.  Nearly 1 million houses are waterlogged, and some 90,000 people have moved to shelters.  Humanitarian partners are coordinating with the Government to distribute food, water purification units, hygiene and dignity kits, and emergency shelter supplies.

**Senior Personnel Appointment

I have a staffing announcement for you.  Today, the Secretary-General is appointing Pedro Antonio Guazo Alonso of Spain, also a national of Mexico, as Representative of the Secretary-General for the investment of the assets of the United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund.  Acting as Representative of the Secretary‑General for the investment of the assets of the Pension Fund since April this year, Mr. Guazo is Director of the Finance Division and Deputy Controller in the Office of Programme Planning, Finance and Budget of the Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance in New York, since 2012.  He had previously served in a similar capacity at WFP in Rome.  With over 10 years of experience in high‑level management positions in the UN system, together with more than 17 years of experience in the private and public sectors, Mr. Guazo brings expertise in national, regional and global practices for financial and pension fund systems.

**Briefing Tomorrow

Tomorrow at 2:30 p.m., there will be an end-of-presidency press briefing by Ambassador Christoph Heusgen of Germany, President of the Security Council for the month of July.  And that's it from me.  I'm ready to take your questions now.  Hold on one second.  And let me see in the chat whether there [are] any questions.  Hold on.  I see a question first from Benno.  Benno, the floor is yours.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you so much.  Hi, Farhan.  I want to ask you about the US Government's announcement today of a massive troop withdrawal from Germany.  We're talking about 12,000 soldiers.  Half of them are supposed to go back to the US, and there are concerns arising now of a possible disbalance of power dynamics in Europe, and I just wanted to ask if the Secretary‑General has any opinion about this.

Spokesman:  Well, we don't comment on most bilateral matters, and this is one such case.  Obviously, we hope and expect that relations between the United States and Germany will continue to be positive and constructive for both of them.  And so, that is as much as I have to say on that.  James?  James Bays?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  First, I know how difficult it is, all of us, virtual working, but the Security Council meeting on Syria, the main event today, was not being broadcast at the main part of the event, a speech by Mr. Lowcock, on the UN website.  So, I don't know if you have an explanation for that, but clearly, it's… it's really regrettable.

Spokesman:  Yes, yes, I do.  And the good news of that is that it will be rebroadcast.  They were able, I think, to get this.  So, upon the conclusion of the morning proceedings, they will rebroadcast from the start so that you can hear from Mr. Lowcock about his briefing.  We shared Mr. Lowcock's briefing remarks, and I just mentioned them just now, but you'll be able to see them, as well.  Unfortunately, there was a technical error in which the broadcasting inadvertently started late, and they had to play a bit of catch-up, but they will do that.

Question:  Okay.  I have a question about Mr. Lowcock's remarks, which, as you say, we have.  He talks about the… how OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] is going to work out the operational arrangements following the Security Council's decision not to renew all the border crossings.  I wondered if you had any more detail on what the operational difficulties are at this stage and an estimate of the number of people that the UN is now no longer able to reach because of this change.

Spokesman:  Well, I wouldn't give a number of who we can’t reach.  We've already mentioned in our… including in Mr. Lowcock's previous briefings, the difficulties in reaching a larger number of people if the number of crossing points were restricted, and the points that the Secretary‑General and Mr. Lowcock have been making still hold.  We will continue to try, through as many means as we can, including through using the cross‑border shipment more… transit point that we have more heavily and distributing more from there, we'll try to reach as many people as we can, and so we'll see whether we can expand our range.  But, the difficulties have been an obvious one, and it's something that we spelled out to the Security Council and spelled out at length.  The simple fact of the matter is, the fewer crossing points we have, the less likely we are able to get as much through cross‑border aid simply because of the backing up of vehicles at the various points, but we are sending in as many vehicles as we can, and we'll continue to do the best we can with the access points that we have.  Okay.  Iftikhar Ali, please?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  Any reaction to the announcement by the Taliban of a three‑day Eid ceasefire in Afghanistan and the commitment by Afghan Government to complete the process of prisoner release?  Any comments on that?

Spokesman:  Well, you've seen from our past statements that we have welcomed any efforts by the parties to halt the fighting in Afghanistan, which has gone on for far too long as it is.  So, we are encouraged by the declared effort to halt fighting during Eid.  Of course, what we are looking for is a more lasting cessation of hostilities, and we hope that that can happen.  As you know, the Secretary‑General, at the start of the COVID‑19 crisis, made a general call to all fighting forces in the world for a halt to [combat] activities so that we can unite in combating the pandemic, and certainly, any efforts that help bring that about are things that we would encourage.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  Recently, the sixteenth anniversary of the ICJ [International Court of Justice] legal opinion on the barrier that Israel is building on Palestinian land, 85 per cent of the separation wall has been built on Palestinian land.  If you recall, the ICJ requested that Israel should dismantle the wall; it should compensate on the Palestinian, and it consider it illegal and violation of international law.  There was a resolution in the GA, and I think that resolution requested the Secretary‑General to report on the damages the wall had caused to the Palestinians.  My question, why the separation wall does not resonate in Mr. [Nickolay] Mladenov's repeated reports to the Security Council? Why in this sixteenth anniversary has not been mentioned as something binding and that Israel should listen to this legal opinion?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  As you know, we encourage all Member States to abide by the rulings of the International Court of Justice, and that is the case across the board.  Regarding Mr. Mladenov, he, of course, has a very large number of topics and a large amount of information to include in his briefings to the Security Council.  But, we have many ways and mechanisms of reporting, and of course, the International Court of Justice also reports and shares information with the Member States.  Stefano Vaccara?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  You already know what is my question, I guess.  Again it's about… can you hear me?  Right?

Spokesman:  Yes, I can hear you.  I'm assuming, but you're free to ask.  You might ask on something different entirely.

Question:  Yes, UN volunteer Mario Paciolla that died in Colombia.  Just because we've been sending email.  There is no answer from the Mission there, and now it's been several days.  So, at this point, I understand that you maybe cannot release information… okay, specific information that maybe you know about the autopsy and so on.  I just want to ask you, first, if you… if you… not personally you, but the Secretary‑General, let's say, has this information, if he's seen it, and when you plan… if you have a date when you're going to release any information… more information that can help us to understand his death and how he died?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Thank you.  And we have been in touch… my colleagues have been in touch with the Mission in Colombia, and as soon as we get any updated information about Mario Paciolla, we'll share it, and we'll share it with you.  And beyond that, I see that Maria Khrenova has written to agree with James Bays' concern about the broadcast.  And yes, Maria, we'll certainly try to provide you updated information about when UN events start as soon as we can.  In this case, today, it seems like there was a mix‑up among our side concerning when the event was going to start, and that's why the coverage… the start of coverage was delayed slightly, but I believe that's been fixed.  Okay.  Does anyone have any further questions?  If not, I shall see you tomorrow.  Have a good afternoon, everyone.

For information media. Not an official record.