14 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 Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.  I will start off with Yemen.  We’re taking kind of the “just in time” delivery approach of statements to a new high, unfortunately, or a new low, depending on how you see it.


On Yemen, I can tell you that the Secretary-General is deeply concerned about the condition of the Safer oil tanker moored off the western coast of Yemen.  The aging tanker has had almost no maintenance since 2015 and risks causing a major oil spill, explosion or fire that would have catastrophic environmental and humanitarian consequences for Yemen and the region.

In particular, a potential oil leak into the Red Sea would severely harm Red Sea ecosystems relied on by 30 million people across the region.  It would moreover force the closure of Hudaydah port for many months, which would exacerbate Yemen’s already severe economic crisis and cut off millions of people from access to food and other essential commodities.

The Secretary-General urges the removal of any obstacles to the efforts needed to mitigate the dangers posed by the tanker without delay.  He specifically calls for granting independent technical experts unconditional access to the tanker and to assess its condition and conduct any possible initial repairs.  This technical assessment will provide crucial scientific evidence for next steps to be taken in order to avert catastrophe.


Turning to Lebanon, we are asking today for $565 million to help the people of Lebanon move from immediate life-saving humanitarian relief to recovery and reconstruction and eventually towards longer-term economic recovery, following the Beirut Port explosions.  Properly funded, these efforts will enable humanitarian partners to help people in need by targeting food security, health, shelter and protection, as well as water and sanitation hygiene support.  The Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Najat Rochdi, urged the international community to demonstrate steadfast commitment to the people of Lebanon and repay in turn Lebanon’s incredible generosity that is has shown towards Syrian and Palestine refugees with full financial support.

We have also been informed today that nearly 100 UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) peacekeepers — both military and civilian — donated blood yesterday and today for the victims of the horrific explosions.  Working in coordination with the Lebanese Red Cross, UNIFIL personnel donated blood in the Mission’s hospital in Naqoura, in south Lebanon.  Last week, UNIFIL personnel joined a collective effort of the UN Staff Unions in Lebanon, as part of the “#UN4Beirut” initiative, to clean up streets of the Beirut district devastated by the explosions.


Turning to Belarus, the Secretary-General continues to follow the situation in Belarus very closely.  We welcome the reported release of some of the detainees last night and urge this to continue.  We are deeply disturbed about the reports and allegations of torture and mistreatment of persons under detention, including young people and journalists.  We take note of the statement of regret by the [Minister] of Interior of Belarus regarding the use of force and expect these incidents and claims to be investigated thoroughly.  We remain in touch with Belarusian authorities in New York, Geneva and Minsk regarding the unfolding situation.

**Israel and United Arab Emirates

In a statement we issued yesterday on the joint statement issued by the US President Donald J. Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, [suspending] Israeli annexation plans over parts of the occupied West Bank — this is something the Secretary-General has consistently called for.  Annexation would effectively close the door for a renewal of negotiations and destroy the prospect of a viable Palestinian State and the two-State solution.  The Secretary-General welcomes this agreement and hopes it will create an opportunity for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to re-engage in meaningful negotiations that will realize a two-State solution in line with relevant UN resolutions, international law and bilateral agreements.

Peace in the Middle East is more important than ever as the region confronts the grave threats posed by COVID-19 and radicalization.  The Secretary-General will continue to work with all sides to open further possibilities for dialogue, peace and stability.


Turning to Syria, the Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for that country, Imran Riza, has expressed concern and alarm over the recent deaths of eight children under the age of 5 last week in Al Hol camp in north-east Syria.  The children, who died between 6 and 10 August, were suffering from a range of illnesses, including malnutrition-related complications, dehydration from diarrhoea, heart failure, internal bleeding and hypoglycaemia.

The UN and humanitarian partners continue to provide a range of critical assistance to Al Hol.  However, access to some basic services, including regular water supply and emergency health care, has been increasingly compromised in recent months because of disruptions to the water supply from the Alouk water station and COVID-19 precautionary measures, among other reasons.


Turning to Cameroon, we have seen recent reports of serious human rights violations and abuses in that country, including a shocking video allegedly showing the brutal murder of a young woman in Muyuka in the south-west.  We strongly and unequivocally condemn this atrocious act of violence.  We call on the authorities to swiftly launch an investigation into these allegations, and to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.  We call on armed actors to refrain from attacks against civilians, to respect international humanitarian and international human rights law, and to join the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire as the world fights the pandemic.

We reiterate the readiness of the UN to work with all stakeholders towards a political solution to the crisis in the north-west and south-west of Cameroon through meaningful dialogue.

**South Sudan

I have an update on the situation in South Sudan’s Tonj region from our peacekeeping mission:  As you know, Tonj was the scene of violent clashes last weekend between members of the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces and armed youth.

The UN Mission’s (UNMISS) team, which arrived in Tonj earlier this week, heard from local authorities that at least 150 people were killed and up to 5,000 families have now been displaced by the clashes.  The Mission tells us that 45 troops plus two UN Military Observers and two Community Liaison officers are on the ground.  UN peacekeepers have carried out patrols to deter a fresh outbreak of violence in the town, where they set up a temporary operating base, as well as the nearby villages of Ameth and Mabior-Yar.

The peacekeepers have also continued to meet with local authorities, community leaders and youth to support the reconciliation efforts.  Peacekeepers are trying to reach Romich, which was reportedly the epicentre of the violence, which is about 100 kilometres east of Tonj, but, as we told you, the road remains impassable because of heavy flooding.  The Mission hopes to undertake an air patrol tomorrow together with the Governor of Warrap state and other local officials.


Turning to Nigeria, the Humanitarian Coordinator for that country, Edward Kallon, said yesterday that Nigeria — in particular the states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe — is facing unprecedented challenges.

At an online briefing which brought together the Government and aid organizations, Mr. Kallon said that a resurgence in violence continues to ravage entire communities, and that Nigeria is also facing extraordinary challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.  Mr. Kallon warned that the hard-won gains made a few years ago in averting famine are in jeopardy, and that at least 10.6 million people in the north-east of Nigeria need humanitarian aid.  We and our partners are appealing for $1 billion to help 7.9 million vulnerable people, but less than a third of those funds have been received.  Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing insecurity, aid workers have reached 2.6 million people with assistance during the first half of this year.  Mr. Kallon acknowledged that many donors are facing challenges due to the pandemic but appealed for coordinated action and sufficient resources to prevent the humanitarian crisis in the north-east from reaching catastrophic levels.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), as more people are impacted by conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Food Programme (WFP) is appealing for additional support to reduce food insecurity.  The agency says that 4 in 10 people in the country are food insecure.  Nearly 16 million are facing “crisis” or “emergency” hunger levels.  This year’s harvest is expected to be below-average in much of the DRC because of drought, flooding and pest infestations.  In many cases, farmers also had limited access to their fields because of insecurity and COVID-19 movement restrictions.  WFP plans to support 8.6 million people this year, including almost a million of those hit hardest by the pandemic.  To do so, the agency needs $172 million to fully implement the emergency operations in the country over the next six months.


I was asked before the briefing about the situation in Mozambique.  I can tell you that we are deeply concerned about the armed violence and escalating conflict in the Province of Cabo Delgado, including in Mocímboa da Praia, and the dire human rights and humanitarian situation that the violence is creating.

The violence, killings, enforced disappearances, kidnappings and other violations against civilians must end.  Those responsible must be held to account.

It is vital that we are able to reach people impacted by the violence with life-saving assistance and protection.  We call on all concerned to ensure that humanitarian agencies are guaranteed safe, unhindered and immediate access to support affected civilians.

**COVID-19 — Guatemala

And a quick update [on our efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic, today from Guatemala], where there are more than 60,000 confirmed cases and nearly 2,300 deaths:  The UN team, led by the Resident Coordinator, Rebeca Arias, is working closely with local authorities.  We recently provided more than $177,000 worth of medical and protective supplies to the Ministry of Health to boost treatment capacity across 23 hospitals nationwide.  With funding from the UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund, UN agencies have set up a programme to ensure that human rights, gender equality, multiculturalism and other key UN values are maintained during the quarantine while protecting health workers and providing support to vulnerable people across the country.


Our friends at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the UN Migration Agency (IOM) said that they are troubled by a proposal to intercept boats and return those attempting to cross the English Channel irregularly.  The UN agencies warned that the deployment of large naval vessels to deter such crossings may result in harmful incidents.  UNHCR and IOM reiterate their call to Governments in Europe and elsewhere to increase search-and-rescue efforts and combat human smuggling and trafficking rings.

On a separate note, IOM said that, despite the mobility restrictions put in place in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, over 1,200 migrants lost their lives during migration in the first half of the year, and this is globally.  Responses to the pandemic, including border closures and other measures, have increased the risks of migratory journeys by pushing people into more perilous and deadly situations where humanitarian support and rescue is increasingly unavailable.  The IOM also noted that data collection is increasingly difficult during the pandemic and that the true number of migrant deaths globally is likely to be much higher.

**UN Virtual Concert — Pacific

And just a reminder — as we told you earlier this week, the UN team in the Pacific region, led by our Resident Coordinator Sanaka Samarasinha in Fiji, is organizing a virtual concert called “Pacific Unite:  Saving Lives Together”.

The event is taking place tomorrow at 7 p.m., Fiji time, and 3 a.m. in New York for those of you who don’t sleep.  It will be streamed on UN WebTV, as well as archived.

The virtual concert will bring together local, regional and international artists to pay tribute to essential workers across the region and to renew the Secretary-General’s call for global solidarity to fight the virus.  The Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, will participate by video, as well as His Royal Highness Prince Charles, the [Prince] of Wales; Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama; and New Zealand [Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern.  I assume they will be speaking and not singing, and artists who are equipped will do the singing.

Okay.  Let’s see what the chat function says and if I have any questions.  Hold on.

**Questions and Answers

Okay.  I don’t see… oh, Iftikhar.  Sorry.  I’m not looking at the right place.

Correspondent:  Thank you, Steph.

Spokesman:  Yes, I… okay.  Iftikhar, go ahead, and then Nizar and then Edie.

Question:  Thank you.  In a statement, the Secretary‑General has highlighted the adverse impact of this oil spill from this tanker off the Yemen coast.  What are the… could you please spell out, what are the conditions they are attaching against holding off UN inspection?

Spokesman:  Listen, I can’t… I’m not going to speak for the Ansar Allah authorities that we’re speaking to.  They have legitimate questions, which we are… we’re answering them.  We’re going into… we’re having dialogue… ongoing dialogue with them.  What’s important for us is that we get there as quickly as possible.

Question:  But it’s been a long time since this dialogue is going on.  Is it… are you making any progress?

Spokesman:  Well, clearly, we’re not making the… we’re moving in the right direction, because we’re continuing the dialogue.  They had given us the travel authorizations.  We’re waiting for visas.  They’re asking for more details.  So, we’re not moving backwards, but we need to move forward at a much faster clip in order to get to the tanker, assess and make whatever repairs possible immediately.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Nizar?

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

Spokesman:  Yes, sir.  I hear you.

Question:  Okay.  Stéphane, with regard to the investigation into the bombing or the explosion in Lebanon, I understand that many parties are taking part in the investigation which is taking place there.  Has the Lebanese Government approached the UN to help in this respect or not?

Spokesman:  No, I’m not aware of any official approaches to the UN to lead… to take part in an investigation.  The responsibility, the primary responsibility obviously lies with the authorities, the national Government in Lebanon.

Question:  There were some reports that the United Nations raised the danger level to staff working in Beirut to D.  Is that correct?  Can you confirm that?

Spokesman:  No, I’m not going to talk about security… the way we rate security issues for our staff.

Question:  But were there any fatalities among the staff there or… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  No, there were injuries, as we told you, notably with the naval personnel, the Bangladeshi naval personnel serving with the UNIFIL maritime component.  The majority of them have been released from hospital.  Still, a few of them are in hospital in stable condition; though, in terms of fatalities, while no staff died, two dependents of UN staff were sadly killed during the blast.

Question:  One last thing.  The people in the neighbourhood of Khandaq Al-Ghamiq, which is an area very close to the government building, have complained that no relief or any support has been given to them so far, 10 days after the explosion.  We interviewed… we in Al‑Mayadeen interviewed many people who have suffered and had fatalities, and their houses are destroyed, but nobody yet approached them or even entered their area.  Why is this happening?

Spokesman:  Listen, I don’t have that sort of granular information.  Send me an email, and I will send it off to my colleagues in Beirut, but we are trying to support, and we are, obviously, supporting the Government of Lebanon.  We’re doing… we’re trying to reach everyone who needs help.

I’m not able, from here, to speak to specific cases, but if you send me the details, we’ll pass it on to our humanitarian colleagues in Lebanon.

Correspondent:  I will.  Thank you very much.

Spokesman:  No problem.

Edie.  And then… [cross talk]

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  A couple of questions.  I assume that David Beasley couldn’t make it today.

Spokesman:  No, unfortunately not.  We’re told it’s a good reason.  He’s welcoming his first grandchild, so…

Question:  Oh, that’s… that is a good reason.  [laughter]

On the Safer tanker, you had said earlier this week that the UN was waiting for a reply from the Houthis.  I assume that there has been no reply from the…

Spokesman:  They’ve… [cross talk]

Question:  I’d just like you to confirm that there’s been no reply to the latest response.

Spokesman:  Right.  We do not… we have not received from them all the necessary green lights and authorizations and visas that we need to send this technical team to the tanker.

There’s been… there continues to be a dialogue with them, via Skype, via written letters.  We’re answering… they have questions.  We answer them, back and forth.  But the main point… the headline is that we have not received all the permissions that we need in order to access the tanker.

You know, to keep in mind that this tanker has received almost no maintenance or upkeep while holding over a million barrels of crude oil with the systems, the tanker, everything deteriorating, and this is a risk of… as I said, of leaks, explosions, fire, all with… in a sense — we’re seeing what happened in Beirut — with [unimaginable] consequences.  Right?  It’s… we can’t imagine what would happen if all the oil leaked or if the oil exploded.

Ibtisam.  Sorry.  Go ahead, Edie.  Sorry.  My bad.  Go ahead.

Question:  The appeal that you just announced for Lebanon, I believe you said $565 million, I assume that that is in addition to the appeal for immediate relief that, I think, got over $300 million at the joint fund‑raising event that France and the United Nations co‑hosted.

Spokesman:  Yes.  This is kind of the detailed needs of what the UN needs.  We’ve done the initial assessment, and this is what we need.

Question:  Does the $300 million that was pledged during that conference go into… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Well, we hope… I think that… where the money goes still has to be seen.  We hope that some of those pledges will go to the appeal.

Ibtisam, please, go ahead, then Alan.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  So, I want to go back to the statement that you read about the United Arab Emirates and Israel agreement.  So, you are welcoming… in your statement, you welcome the claim of suspending annexation when, as a matter of fact, Netanyahu himself said that the full plan is still on the table.  And… but, more importantly, facts on the ground show that confiscation of Palestinian land, building of settlements, etc., is just going nonstop.

So, my question to you is, why are you supporting the occupation, if you want, and issuing such a statement and ignoring the facts on the ground?

Spokesman:  Listen, I think your… let me just put it this way.  I don’t agree with the logic that you infer from our statement.  We are welcoming what was said that… the paper that was issued jointly by the three leaders yesterday.

For us, the suspension of an annexation is very important and something that we’ve consistently called for.  I don’t think anyone can accuse the Secretary‑General of supporting the occupation.  Whether it’s him, whether it’s Mr. [Nickolay] Mladenov, other UN… or other UN officials have consistently spoken out against annexation, unilateral moves, anything that we see that puts in jeopardy the two‑State solution and a viable Palestinian State.

So, I don’t see… I don’t think we can be accused of supporting the occupation.  What we are supporting is an opportunity that we hope will create… an opportunity for Israelis and Palestinian leaders to re‑engage in meaningful negotiations.  I mean, this has been the Secretary‑General’s message for quite some time, during his last briefing to the Council, Mr. Mladenov’s last briefing to the Council.

This was announced yesterday.  Obviously, we have to see about the implementation, but I think it’s important that all three parties focus on the implementation as outlined in the statement.

Question:  Okay.  I’m sorry.  I have a follow‑up.  Of course, I mean, you are talking about suspending, but as I said, as a matter of fact, on the ground, even your own reports by OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), in the last two weeks, at least, there were 100 Palestinians who were injured during demonstrations, peaceful demonstrations, in Turmus Ayya, a village near Ramallah, where people were demonstrating against land confiscation and settlements building.

We don’t hear from your… there are UN reports from the different organizations about these issues and other issues, but from your office, from the Secretary‑General, we don’t hear any condemnations for these issues.

And your statement talks about suspending, where, as a matter of fact, there is no suspending on the ground.  The facts on the ground show that the Israelis are doing whatever they want to do and continuing with that.

Spokesman:  We will continue…

Correspondent:  Yeah.  Sorry.

Spokesman:  Sorry.  No, I didn’t mean to interrupt.

Correspondent:  I’m done.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  We will continue, through our regular reporting mechanisms, whether it’s OCHA, Mr. Mladenov, to report the facts as we see them on the ground, and we will continue to speak out against violations as we see them.  That… and our position has not changed.

We see this statement as an opportunity.  Let’s… we look forward to its implementation.

Alan and then Nabil.

Correspondent:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  [inaudible] Ibtisam.

Sorry.  Sorry.  Go ahead.  Go ahead, Alan.

Question:  Yeah.  As you know, President [Vladimir] Putin today called the P5 leaders plus Germany and Iran to convene urgent summit regarding the situation in Persian Gulf.  He’s going to discuss the security situation in Persian Gulf, Iran, JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

So, I just have a question whether… does the SG find that it’s the right time to convene such a meeting?  And has he been in touch with any of the parties mentioned by President Putin?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  It’s not for him to opine.  I mean, I think the P5 can meet without the Secretary‑General opining.  We’ve always maintained that the JCPOA was a very important diplomatic act and that it should continue to be supported.  So, our position of support towards the JCPOA remains unchanged, and whatever parties can do to support it, we would support.

Nabil, and then Margaret Besheer is making an appearance.

Question:  Hello, Stéphane.  Thank you.  My question is, was the Secretary‑General briefed by the United States or Israel or the United Arab Emirates on these… on this agreement or statement or announcement?  Was he briefed about its details, its scope, its… I don’t know.  What does it mean exactly?  Because the UN should be part of this, but obviously, the UN is not part of this agreement.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  No, the Secretary‑General was not briefed ahead of time.

Question:  And after, not at all?

Spokesman:  We’ve been in touch with the relevant parties.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Maggie?

Question:  Hey, Steph.  Question… I’m still confused on the Lebanon… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  No video?

Correspondent:  What?

Spokesman:  No video?

Correspondent:  I started it.  You don’t see it?  Oh, wait.  I have to push the button.  Hold on.

Spokesman:  Okay.

Correspondent:  There you go.  Do you miss me that much?

Spokesman:  There you… Maggie! How are you?

Correspondent:  Hi.  [laughter]

Question:  On the Lebanon appeal, I don’t see, like, anything in my inbox.  I don’t see anything on the OCHA Lebanon website.  [cross talk]  I’m a little confused about the amount.  Is it for the entire UN.  Does it include UNICEF, World Food Programme, everybody?  Like, could we get a little more detail?

Spokesman:  To say that UN appeals are… humanitarian appeals are somewhat complex and complicated would be stating the obvious.  This just literally came in as we were doing the briefing.  So, we will… we’re trying to get more information and more details that our OCHA colleagues will send out.  So, if you could just be a little bit patient, we’ll send something out as quickly as possible in writing.

Question:  Okay.  And one other thing.  On damage to UN property in Beirut from the explosion — for instance, maybe ESCWA (Economic and Social Commission for West Asia), they’re in downtown; it’s an all‑glass building — have you guys had a damage assessment?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  I’ve not been told of damage to ESCWA.  There was, obviously, damage to peace… to…

Correspondent:  To the ship.

Spokesman:  …to the ship, which is considered UN property.  So, we will start the usual procedures when those things happen.  But we’ll see… we’ll try to get an assessment of damage to UN property.  If there was, I don’t think it was anything very significant, as we weren’t told, but we’ll see.

Correspondent:  Okay.  Thanks.  Have a good weekend.

Spokesman:  You, too.

Maria Khrenova.

Correspondent:  Hi, Steph.  Do you hear me okay today?

Spokesman:  Perfectly.

Question:  Good.  Yeah.  You mentioned that UN is in touch with Belarusian authorities in New York, Geneva and Minsk.  Could you elaborate, what did you mean by that?… [cross talk]  You mean you contacted representatives here in New York and…

Spokesman:  So, through the Permanent Mission here in New York, the Permanent Mission in Geneva, obviously where our human rights colleagues are based, and our Resident Coordinator with counterparts in the Government in Minsk.

Question:  Also, what did they… what was their answer, I wonder?

Spokesman:  I can’t go into that, but we’ve, obviously, made our position known both publicly and privately.

Question:  Also, on the same topic, the Special Rapporteur of United Nations about human rights in Belarus who is actually in Warsaw, ironically, she told, in interview to TASS today, that she considers it would be better to organize a conference under OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), yeah, or United Nations to avoid one country’s initiatives.  So, I wonder if the UN consider the possibility of such conference to discuss this situation in Ukraine.

Spokesman:  I didn’t look into that report.  I haven’t seen it.  Obviously, as you know, the special rapporteurs are independent, but I’m not aware at this point of any movement in that direction, but we will check.

Correspondent:  Okay.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  All right.  Did I miss anybody?  If I… Ibtisam, you have another question?

Question:  Yes.  Thank you.  I have a follow‑up.  So, you said that you have been in touch with all parties after the announcement?  Does this include Palestinians?

And then, what is your position on the Palestinian reaction regarding that… this agreement, that they describe it as a stab in the back?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  It’s not for me to react to somebody else’s reaction.  I’ve… we are in constant touch… Mr. Mladenov’s office is in constant touch with his two main interlocutors, which are the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government.

Okay.  Have a great weekend.  Hasta Monday or hasta lunes, as they say.  Bye.

For information media. Not an official record.