3 August 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 Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon, everyone.  I hope you had a nice long weekend and have come here with renewed enthusiasm for muting your mic when you are not speaking.


This week, the Secretary-General is looking at the impact of COVID-19 on education.  At a minute after midnight tonight, he will launch the policy brief entitled “Education during COVID-19 and Beyond”.  According to the policy brief, the pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in all countries and all continents.  It has also exacerbated education disparities.

**Women — Peace Processes

Today, UN‑Women and the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs are launching a joint policy brief entitled “COVID-19 and Conflict:  Advancing women’s meaningful participation in ceasefires and peace processes”.  In support of the Secretary-General's call for a Global Ceasefire, the brief addresses the importance of women’s full, equal and meaningful participation to an effective pandemic response and to peace-making efforts.  It also provides a preliminary analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on women’s participation in ceasefires and peace processes and offers a series of recommendations, including on “building back better”.  The policy brief is available online.


The UN Special Representative for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, commended the Yazidis’ resilience in preserving their culture and land, and determinedly pursuing their rights despite the odds, six years after the atrocities committed by Da’esh.  She urged Baghdad and Erbil to reach agreement without delay to provide this beleaguered community with the tools and the right environment to rebuild their lives.  She said she took heart in the determination of the many Yazidis pursuing freedom and justice for their community.  Still, she stated, their ordeal is not over, as the people of Sinjar continue to suffer — from insecurity, the absence of adequate services and the lack of a unified administration.


The UN remains concerned about a possible humanitarian disaster in Libya should the current escalation and mobilization around Sirte lead to military operations.  The lives of more than 125,000 people in and around Sirte are at great risk.  COVID-19 cases continue to increase across Libya, with 3,837 cases reported and 83 deaths to date, most of them in the western and southern parts of the country.  Capacity for testing, tracing and treating people remains extremely low across the country and continues to be concentrated in Tripoli and Benghazi.  In response to the severe shortage of swabs for testing in the south, health authorities in Tripoli have dispatched a shipment of 20,000 swabs to Sebha.  Fuel shortages and electricity cuts of more than 18 hours a day are exacerbating poor living conditions for many across the country.  Health facilities have also suffered from electricity cuts, forcing some to temporarily suspend operations.  The UN and humanitarian partners are at the forefront in supporting the national authorities with its COVID-19 response, particularly in the provision of health supplies and personal protection equipment.

**COVID-19 — Pakistan

In Pakistan, where there have been more than 280,000 COVID-19 cases and nearly 6,000 deaths, the UN and our humanitarian partners are supporting the Government in responding to the pandemic.  More than $3 million in cash was distributed to people affected by drought in Balochistan and Sindh Provinces, while food aid was provided to 12,000 households affected by a snow emergency in Kashmir.  Emergency food assistance is being finalized for more than 120,000 people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan to help them cope with the economic fallout due to COVID-19.  Cash assistance has also been given to 35,000 refugee families so far, while nearly 3 million people have received water, sanitation and hygiene services.  The Pakistan Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19 seeks $146 million and is 25 per cent funded so far.  Also on Pakistan, the head of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Audrey Azoulay, today condemned the murder of a journalist named Anwar Jan in Barkhan in Balochistan Province.  She called on authorities to investigate this crime and hold its perpetrators to account, stressing that a clear message must be sent whereby “gunpoint censorship cannot go unpunished”.

**COVID-19 — Peacekeeping

We have an update from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).  The Mission recently organized a forum in western Bahr el Ghazal to increase understanding of the Revitalized Peace Agreement in the country, despite the challenges posed by COVID-19.  Political officials, religious and community leaders, and civil society representatives took part in this event.  Those attending agreed to continue to work together, using social media and text messaging to foster dialogue.

**COVID-19 — Montenegro

In Montenegro, where more than 3,200 COVID-19 cases have been reported, and more than 50 deaths due to the virus, the UN team is being led by Resident Coordinator Fiona McCluney.  By redirecting more than $2 million and fundraising more than $5.5 million, the UN is supporting the country's response on several fronts.  The UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) secured medical and protective equipment.  For its part, the World Health Organization (WHO) provided advice to boost clinical and laboratory capacity and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) supported risk communication support.  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have also provided services to vulnerable communities.


UNHCR has expressed its dismay at the violent death of a transgender woman seeking asylum in Guatemala.  The woman’s body was found on Saturday at her home in Guatemala City.  She had fled El Salvador in 2017 after having suffered violence due to her gender identity and the persecution of gangs.  UNHCR called on the Guatemalan authorities to fully investigate the death in light of its commitment to protect people in the LGBTI community and people seeking international protection in the country.


And later today, at 3 p.m., we will have a briefing by Ambassador Dian Triansyah Djani, Permanent Representative of Indonesia to the United Nations, as President of the Security Council for August.  He will discuss the Council’s programme of work for the month.  And that is all I have for my notes.  And let us turn to your questions, and I will see whether anyone has anything yet.  Edie has a question.  Edie, you're on.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you very much, Farhan.  I actually have two questions.  First, does the Secretary‑General have any comment on the death today of Nobel laureate and key architect of the Northern Ireland peace agreement John Hume?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes, we were extremely saddened to learn of the death of John Hume.  The Secretary‑General is certainly very appreciative for Mr. Hume's peace efforts for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize.  And certainly, we continue to support the efforts by all parties to achieve peace in Northern Ireland.  And that, of course, is a direct result of the work that was done, among others, by Mr. Hume.

Question:  And my second question is, can you give us an update on when we might see a new SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary-General] for Libya and what the status is of trying to arrange new talks with both sides?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, on that, as you know, our acting Special Representative, Stephanie Williams, has been in touch with the parties, and she continues to work with them to bring them together.  We don't have a date announced for direct talks, but she is continuing with that effort.  And you know the ups and downs of the process of finding a new full‑time Special Representative as well as any of us do, and we're continuing with those efforts.  Certainly, we hope that all of the Member States, all the countries on the Security Council will be helpful as we try to bring this process to a conclusion.  And with that, Iftikhar, you have a question.

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  This is regarding your readout about United Nations' support to Pakistan's efforts to control the coronavirus.  Today, The Wall Street Journal reported that Pakistan has nearly brought it… brought the pandemic under control.  Any comments on that?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, as you know, in different countries, we've seen this pandemic take on a particular course of rising and falling.  There are countries that have not recorded any COVID‑19 cases in many weeks, and we're very grateful for their efforts.  There are countries that have brought it to a lower level, but sometimes there's still concerns of potential spikes.  And that has happened including in some of the countries in Europe; and of course, as you've noted, Pakistan has seen a decrease, but not an outright end.  We are continuing to follow the progression of the pandemic, and we encourage all countries to do whatever it takes, not just to flatten curves, but to bring them down to zero cases when possible.  Abdelhamid, you have some questions.

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  On 7 May, staff and retirees from Lebanon… international UN staff who served in Lebanon and is still serving, they sent a letter to the Secretary‑General, complaining about the blocking of their funds in Lebanese banks.  They have no access to their funds.  They are in dollars, and many of them are foreign nationals; they're not Lebanese.  And they wrote a letter to the Secretary‑General asking for his intervention to solve this problem.  The Secretary‑General asked Ján Kubiš to help with this crisis, and they have not heard from either Ján Kubiš or the Secretary‑General.  I have a copy of the letter they sent to the Secretary‑General.  And can you follow up, and can you give me a concrete answer about this?  It's a very important issue.

Deputy Spokesman:  What I can say is we do try to make sure that all UN staff receive their payment in all of their duty stations.  In different countries, including in the one that you just mentioned, there are challenges posed by conditions affecting the local banking systems.  And we do try to work as best we can with local authorities, and that is the case in this.  And I can assure you that Mr. Kubiš and our country team in Lebanon will be working to make sure that everyone gets their pay.

Question:  But, so far, there is no solution.  They still don't have access to their funds.  Some of them are retirees, and they have obligations.  So, can you give us some…?

Deputy Spokesman:  As I pointed out, in different countries, there are sometimes challenges involving…

Correspondent:  I'm talking about just Lebanon.

Deputy Spokesman:  …local economic — please let me continue — local economic conditions and the local banking system, and we'll try to work with those.  Okay.  And did you have a different question?

Question:  Yes, I do have about… sorry.  I… it's about Libya, but I… if you have another question… can I ask about Libya?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes, you can ask about Libya.

Question:  Yeah, Libya.  Stephanie Williams issued a very important statement during this weekend about warning that war could erupt anytime.  What information she had or extra information and… about what's going on in terms of sending more weapons and mercenaries to the belligerent parties in Lebanon… in Libya that made her, you know, issue that strong statement?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, you're aware of the work that she's been doing and the concerns we've been expressing for many weeks now, particularly about the build‑up of forces around Sirte.  I mentioned that at the earlier part of this very briefing.  Obviously, there are concerns in many different places, but we are very worried about the marshalling of different forces.  We do not want to see another innocent community, another group of people brought into harm's way, and that is certainly the case in Sirte, and that is what she was stressing over the Eid weekend.  And we, of course, support her call.  Stefano Vaccara?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  Yes, about the UN volunteer, Mario Paciolla, that death in Colombia, we have this news that the Colombian authority put on an investigation the four Colombian policemen that let the UN… people from the UN Mission to get to Paciolla belongings practically few hours after his death.  They are under investigation because now there are… there is an investigation about his death, if it's suicide or not.  Apparently, with the intervention of the UN in Paciolla's apartment, you know, of course, if you are investigating, and some of them getting in the apartment, well… you know, the situation is… shouldn't have happened.  So, do you have any response to this, the fact that a Colombian authority now are looking into this, why the UN did what it did?  And then I have a second question, is about Italian Foreign Minister, Luigi Di Maio, just few days ago, had a… during an event on Mario Paciolla's memory, he said Italy wants the truth and will pursue the truth.  So, my question is, did Italian Government or the minister himself had a contact with the Secretary‑General on this issue?  Did he ask some questions… some information?  And did you answer to his requests?  Thank you very much.

Deputy Spokesman:  Okay.  Well, first of all, regarding your initial question about the treatment of this issue by the Colombian authorities, I would leave that matter basically in the hands of the Colombian authorities.  For our part, the UN is cooperating fully with the Colombian authorities responsible for determining the cause of death, and we've been providing all necessary information and support, both from our Verification Mission in Colombia and from UN Headquarters.  And of course, that investigation is on their part, and we will await the results of those investigations, and we'll continue to cooperate fully with those.  With regards to communications from the Italian Government, we have been in close communication with the Government of Italy, both through the Italian Embassy in Bogota and its representation here in New York.  And we have assured the Government of Italy of the UN's cooperation with any requests arising from investigations that could be undertaken by Italy.  So, we certainly do intend that cooperation to continue.

Question:  Now, was… I'm sorry, Farhan.  My question… and thank you very much for your answer, but also the specific… if there was a specific request from the Italian minister or Italian Government directly to the UN Secretary‑General [António] Guterres.  I mean, did they ask directly to him to intervene?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, I'll leave that… that's really a question for the Italian authorities.  From our standpoint, we, the United Nations, have been in contact at various levels in Colombia, here at the UN, and we will continue to be in touch and to work with the Italian authorities.  And I see no other questions.  I did get a question by email from Sylviane Zehil asking for a response to the declaration by Lebanon's Foreign Minister that he could not continue.  We would not have any response for that internal issue within the Lebanese Government.  And with that, I wish you all a good afternoon.  Have a good day.

For information media. Not an official record.