4 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.

All right.  Good afternoon.  Here’s hoping the power doesn’t go out with this storm.  On a related note, did you know it hit 91ºC in the Arctic yesterday?  Good times.


Today, the Secretary-General launched the policy brief on education during COVID-19 and beyond.  In a video message, the Secretary-General stressed that education is the key to personal development and the future of societies.  He noted that, in mid-July, schools were closed in more than 160 countries, affecting over 1 billion students.  The Secretary-General said that, despite the delivery of lessons by radio, television and online, and the best efforts of teachers and parents, many students remain out of reach.  Learners with disabilities, those in minority or disadvantaged communities, displaced and refugee students, and those in remote areas are at highest risk of being left behind.

The Secretary-General emphasized that we already faced a learning crisis before the pandemic.  Now we face a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities.  The policy brief calls for action in four key areas.  The first is reopening schools once local transmission of COVID-19 is under control.  The second is prioritizing education in financing decisions.  The third is targeting the hardest to reach and the fourth is related to the future of education.  The policy brief was launched alongside the “Save Our Future” campaign, a multi‑partner initiative aimed at re-imagining the learning agenda and ensuring that education becomes a core part of the COVID recovery around the world.

**Lake Chad Basin

In a statement we issued last night, the Secretary-General strongly condemned the heinous attacks against civilians last Friday and Sunday, in the Lac Province of Chad and the Far North region of Cameroon.  The attacks led to the killing and abduction of many civilians, including women, children and displaced people who had fled violence.  Those responsible for these atrocities must be held accountable.  International human rights law and international humanitarian law must be fully respected and all civilians in Cameroon and Chad must be protected.  The UN remains steadfast in its support to the countries of the Lake Chad Basin in their efforts to overcome the scourge of terrorism, and address the security, political, humanitarian and socioeconomic challenges in the region.


Turning to Yemen, our humanitarian colleagues report that heavy rains caused severe flooding in several parts of Yemen.  The worst affected areas are in Abyan, Marib, Amran, Sa’ada, Al Jawf, Ibb and Al Dhale’e Governorates.  More than 10,000 displaced people who had been living in temporary shelters were again displaced by the floods, which also destroyed homes, relief supplies and other property.  Casualty estimates are not yet available.  The UN and humanitarian organizations are currently working to assess the situation and mobilize emergency assistance, including relief items for displaced families.  Yemen has experienced heavier than usual rains this year, which is worsening an already catastrophic humanitarian situation that includes the growing risk of famine, the devastating impact of COVID-19 and other challenges.  More rain is expected in the coming days.  To date, the Yemen response plan is only 21 per cent funded.  Cuts to donor funding are forcing core programmes to close or reduce support across sectors, including food, water, health and nutrition.


We remain concerned about the safety and protection of more than 4 million civilians in north-western Syria — 2.7 million of whom are internally displaced — following reports of airstrikes and shelling in the past few days.  Yesterday, local sources reported air strikes impacting three communities in Idlib Governorate, as well as one community in northern Lattakia Governorate.  As a result of air strikes, three people were reportedly killed and seven injured in Bennsh, in Idlib Governorate.  The UN calls on all parties to heed the calls by the Secretary-General for a full ceasefire as an essential measure to enable communities to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.  The UN also continues to remind all parties, and those with influence over them, of their obligation to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure as required by international humanitarian law and international human rights law.


In the Philippines, the United Nations and our partners today launched the largest international humanitarian response plan in the country since Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.  The humanitarian country team COVID-19 response plan, which calls for $122 million, focuses on providing critical health and humanitarian assistance to the 5.4 million poorest and most marginalized Filipinos living in poor, densely populated urban areas.  It also prioritizes the safety and well-being of women and girls.  The Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator, Gustavo Gonzalez, said that our role is to make the best use of our global knowledge and resources to join the Government’s efforts to contribute to the safety and well-being of the Filipino people.  So far, more than 30 million people [have been reached] with messages on COVID-19 prevention and access to services.  More than 4 million people have received health‑care services and more than 620,000 people have received water, sanitation and hygiene supplies.  There is more on this online.

**Mario Paciolla

In a note we issued yesterday, we reaffirmed that the United Nations is cooperating fully with the Colombian authorities responsible for determining with certainty the cause of death of Mario Paciolla.  The Verification Mission, with all necessary support from UN Headquarters, has responded to all requests for assistance.  This has included the lifting of immunities to permit interviews with colleagues of Mr. Paciolla and through facilitating all requests to review personal effects and work equipment as part of the investigation.  We have also been in close communication with the Government of Italy, through its Embassy in Bogota and its representation at the United Nations in New York.  It is through this cooperation with the relevant investigations that the UN can best contribute to what all concerned wish to see, that the circumstances of Mario Paciolla’s death are fully clarified.  While awaiting the results of those investigations and cooperating fully with them, we do not intend to comment about details of the case or speculate about the outcome of the investigations as it would be inappropriate to do so.

**Child Labour

Earlier today, the Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour has reached universal ratification.  The convention was adopted 21 years ago.  Guy Rider, the head of the International Labour Organization (ILO), said that this reflects a global commitment that the worst forms of child labour — such as slavery, sexual exploitation, the use of children in armed conflict or other illicit or hazardous work that compromises their health, morals or psychological well‑being — have no place in our society.  ILO estimates there are 152 million children in child labour, 73 million of whom are involved in hazardous work.  The COVID-19 pandemic now brings the risk that years of progress will be reversed, leading to a potential increase in child labour for the first time in 20 years, unless action is taken.  And in case you were wondering, the Convention reached universal ratification when the Kingdom of Tonga deposited its instruments earlier today.

**Latin America and Caribbean

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), has warned that children living in coastal areas of Central America and the Caribbean could face the additional threat of catastrophic storms as the 2020 hurricane season moves into a more active phase.  UNICEF is especially concerned that a powerful storm could severely undermine ongoing efforts to stop transmission of COVID-19.  The virus could spread easily in crowded emergency shelters where physical distancing would be difficult to ensure.  At the same time, existing control measures like handwashing could falter if essential water, sanitation and health infrastructure were to be damaged or destroyed.  Across the region, UNICEF is working to support hurricane preparedness efforts and public health responses through education, community outreach and technical support to Governments.  UNICEF is also supporting the “Safe Schools” initiative across 18 countries in the Caribbean to protect students and educators from natural hazards, and it is prepositioning life-saving supplies to reach thousands of children in the region.

**Goodwill Ambassador

Today, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced the appointment of South Sudanese track and field athlete Yiech Pur Biel as their newest Goodwill Ambassador.  A refugee, Pur was forced to flee the conflict in South Sudan in 2005, journeying alone to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya when he was only 10 years old.  Growing up in Kakuma, Pur devoted himself to athletic training.  He began running competitively in 2015, before becoming part of the first Refugee Olympic Team at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.  In his new role as a Goodwill Ambassador, Pur will continue to advocate for the rights of the displaced while pursuing his training to be on the Refugee Olympic team in Tokyo 2021.

And that is it.  I’ve made it through the initial part of the briefing while still having power, although I see a hurricane raging, more or less, outside my door.  So, I will now turn to the chat, and see what questions you have.  I believe we have a question from Iftikhar.  Iftikhar, you're on.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, Steph [sic].  I hope you… we escape this storm.  It is also hitting my windows.  My question is, tomorrow will be one year of Indian annexation of Jammu and Kashmir that violated international law and UN resolution, as well as after a military lockdown that followed the Indian action.  Since then, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights [has] issued reports of situation in the disputed state and called for lifting of the siege, full restoration of communication links, and an end to the human rights abuses in his compre… human rights abuses.  In his comprehensive statement on 8 August last year, the Secretary‑General spoke of applicable UN Security Council resolutions which called for exercise of Kashmiri's people right of self‑determination and drew attention to the bilateral agreements between India and Pakistan on the issue.  The UN chief also called for providing steps that could affect the status of Jammu and Kashmir.  Also, nothing much has changed in the Indian‑occupied Kashmir, but reports continue to pour in about continuing violence, about Kashmiri civilians.  Does the Secretary‑General have any comments on this occasion?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, thank you, Iftikhar, for going through the record of the things that the Secretary‑General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in particular, have said about this.  The positions that we articulated at the time still stand.  And so, the concerns that we've had about this remain the same as we have previously said.  And now Toby, a question from Toby at NHK.

Question:  Hi there, Farhan.  Can you hear me okay?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yeah, I can hear you.

Question:  Thank you.  So, in… with regard to the policy brief on education, I think as many as 100 countries have yet to announce any specific plans for re‑opening schools and restarting their education systems after the pandemic.  What does the Secretary‑General have to say about that status of worldwide education?  That's the first question.  And the second one is, what regions of the world are responding well in terms of education?  And which are… have room for improvement?  Can you speak regionally a little bit about this issue?  And if you wouldn't mind mentioning the US, I'd appreciate that in particular.  Thank you very much.

Deputy Spokesman:  Thanks, Toby.  Basically, I don't want to go beyond what the report itself contains.  It's actually fairly thorough, and it does describe the situation in various regions.  So, I'd leave you to that.  The basic point is, of course, there's two challenges.  One is the challenge of dealing with the pandemic and making sure that everyone's safety is ensured, and the second challenge, of course, as we're pointing out here, is to make sure that the education, the minds and the development of the young are not harmed by the pandemic and the lockdowns.  So, these are balances that different leaders have had to strike, different school systems have had to strike.  Where we stand is that we prepared… in the report, you see the various guidelines that we have and the four basic goals that I articulated at the top of this briefing.  And, so, that is the sort of consideration we want leaders, not just governments, but school officials, communities, to bear in mind as they try to deal with this question.  And that is a challenge everywhere.  Certainly, it's a challenge in the US, as you mentioned, but across the board, this is a balance we'll have to strike and make sure that the educational opportunities of the current generation are not harmed in any long‑lasting fashion from what is a clear crisis posed by the pandemic.  Okay.  Nabil Abi Saab?

Question:  Hi.  Thank you, Farhan.  We have breaking news coming from Beirut today.  Do you have any information about the explosion or multiple explosions that took place in Beirut?  Also, a lot of buildings have damages because of these explosions.  Do you know about any UN facility or building that also is damaged because of this, or you have any personnel… any victims from your personnel in Beirut?

Deputy Spokesman:  At this stage, we have no indication from our colleagues in Lebanon that there's been any harm to UN personnel or facilities.  And certainly, I hope that they're all okay, and I hope that the people of Lebanon are okay.  These… there are very worrying signs of explosions.  We do not have information about what has happened precisely, what has caused this, whether it's an accidental or man‑made act.  And so, we will need that information to respond.  Once we get that, we'll probably try to express something further, but at this stage, our thoughts are with the people of Lebanon, and we hope that whatever has happened that the damage is limited and that the safety of the Lebanese people will be ensured.  Stefano Vaccara, you have a question?

Question:  Yes.  Thank you, Farhan.  I actually have two questions.  One is about, again, about the UN volunteer in Colombia, Paciolla.  Thank you for the statement you released yesterday, you sent.  I have a question about that.  When… when you specified that there has been the release of diplomatic immunity, no, on the… on certain people in the Mission… of the UN Mission in Colombia so they can answer questions, there is… this is… you mean like the question of the police, for the police investigation.  Right?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yeah.  Well, regarding that, the basic point is, the lifting of immunity applies to a small number of colleagues that the Colombian authorities wish to interview.  So, for… in order to allow those interviews to take place, we lifted immunity, like I said, to a small number of colleagues who are on the ground in Colombia.  You're muted.

Question:  On that, I have question.  Because through the story from his mother, from his… some colleagues, we find out that Mario Paciolla was worried for his relationship with certain colleagues, and he said at one point that he… one of them call him a spy.  So, I'm asking you, did the UN find out who is this particular member of the Mission in Colombia, who called few… I assume few days before his death, the member… I mean Mario Paciolla's a spy?  Did you find out?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, I think the note we put out yesterday puts it well in terms of the fact that we have provided the necessary cooperation, including to the Colombian authorities, but we're not going to speculate or offer any comment on the substance of the investigation as it proceeds.  I personally don't want to do anything that would hinder the investigation, and I don't think putting speculation out there will be helpful to the conduct of this.  We'll see what the authorities come out with once they've completed their work.  They've certainly received the information that we can provide, and we'll see where they go with that.  Okay.  Again, you're muted.  Stefano, you're muted one more time.

Correspondent:  I have a question on another subject, but I want to leave it to my colleagues first, and then eventually I will ask.

Deputy Spokesman:  Okay.  I'll go back to you then.  Michelle Nichols, you have a question?

Correspondent:  Thanks, Farhan.  Nabil has actually already asked my question.  All good.  Thank you.

Deputy Spokesman:  Okay.  Great.  And I know a number of you are also concerned about what's happening in Lebanon, and whenever we have further details, we'll try to see what sort of response we can have.  Gloria Starr Kins?

Correspondent:  Yeah, very well.  Going back to when [Andres] Pastrana was president, they know what they're doing.  And if they're investigating, they need to go to secret people, the "in" crowd, to get the gossip from everybody.  They've got to… undercover agents working and whistle‑blowers.  So, not all of this can be public knowledge at this point.  Some of it has to be under the radar.  But, I believe that, certainly, the people examining the situation, the family of Mario Paciolla and you should be… at the moment, give it a little time to get to the centre of what really is the truth.  It's not going to come out overnight.  It will come out.  It always does.

Deputy Spokesman:  Thanks very much for your input.  Yes.  We'll certainly do our best to be patient, and we'll also try to communicate what we have once we have something more.  And I believe with that, we'll turn the floor back over to Stefano.

Question:  Thank you, Gloria, for… for your input.  You know, we are here asking questions every day just because we want to make sure that everything is done, and I understand that there is time; they need time, but at the same time, this time doesn't have to become years or… months or years.  There are certain things that have to be… you know, to find out if a person was killed or died of suicide, I think, it doesn't… shouldn't take so long.  Anyway, my question… thank you, Farhan.  My question is actually on another subject.  It is about Libya, and I would like to know if the Secretary‑General is, in this hour, concerned about… more concerned than usual… I know he's concerned about Libya, but more than usual about what's happening between Egypt and Turkey.  I mean, is… the words exchanged before the two countries are looking more in an escalating phase.  And any comment on the fact that the Security Council didn't put on its agenda a meeting scheduled on Libya?  I understand that usually is, you know, one month, yes, one month off, but countries that… you know, the Mission that you choose to… that the Secre… the Security Council choose, but in this case, when we are… when we are expecting any moment an escalation where two important country, big country like Egypt and Turkey, could start to shoot at each other, did… does the Secretary‑General think that the Security Council should be having this meeting on Libya already scheduled to try to… you know, to try to defuse, to try to make things better?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, first of all, regarding the Security Council, they, of course, control their own programme, and it's up to them.  We certainly think that if the situation warrants it, they should look at the situation in Libya, and we're certainly prepared to brief them on the matters on the ground whenever they choose to take it up again.  And regarding the situation concerning other countries, we made very clear that we do not believe that there needs to be any more weapons, any more armaments, any more personnel on the ground in Libya.  There's been too much violence there already and… my gosh, I wish you could see what I can see outside my window right now.  It's pretty dramatic… but I think that the violence there needs to stop, and that has been the Secretary‑General's call to all the parties and the call by Stephanie Williams.  And with that, I'm going to leave off.  I certainly hope that we make it through this storm, but I will turn off now and wish you a good afternoon.  Have great day, everyone.

Correspondent:  Stay safe, Farhan.

Deputy Spokesman:  Okay.  Good luck, everyone.  I hope we all make it through the storm together.  Bye.

For information media. Not an official record.