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18 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.  The reason for the delay is that I had a lot of material come to me at the very last minute, but it was worth, hopefully, you’ll think it was worth waiting for.

**Mali

I’ll start off, obviously, with the situation in Mali, and I can tell you that the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and of course all of us here at UN Headquarters, including the Secretary-General, are following the situation in Mali very closely.  The Secretary-General calls on all Malians to preserve the integrity of the country’s democratic institutions.  We affirm that, together with Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, the European Union and other partners, the United Nations will continue to accompany Malians in their efforts to consolidate peace and democracy.

**Côte d’Ivoire

I also have a statement on Côte d'Ivoire, and I can tell you that the Secretary-General is closely following developments in Côte d'Ivoire ahead of the presidential election scheduled for 31 October.  The Secretary-General is concerned about the violent events reported in the country over the past few days, which led to the death of several people in Daoukro, Bonoua and Gagnoa.  He extends his condolences to the bereaved families and wishes a prompt recovery for the injured.  The Secretary-General urges all stakeholders to engage in dialogue to resolve their differences and to create an environment conducive for a peaceful, inclusive and credible election.  He reassures the Government and people of Côte d'Ivoire of the continued support of the United Nations.

**Lebanon Ruling

And I also have a statement on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which, as you know, just issued a number of decisions.  The Secretary-General takes note of today’s delivery by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon of the judgement in which Mr. Salim Jamil Ayyash was convicted in relation to the 14 February 2005 attack in Beirut that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as well as 21 other people and injured 226 people.  In the same judgment, the three other accused, Mr. Hassan Habib Merhi, Mr. Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Mr. Assad Hassan Sabra, were found not guilty.  The Secretary-General’s thoughts are with the victims of the 14 February 2005 attack and their families.  The judgement in the case is a reflection of the international community’s commitment to justice for the terrible crimes committed on that day.

The Secretary-General expresses his deep appreciation for the dedication and hard work of the judges and staff involved in the case throughout the years.  The Secretary-General notes the independence and impartiality of the Special Tribunal and calls upon all to respect the decisions of the Tribunal.  The Secretary General also calls on the international community to continue to support the independent judicial proceedings that remain before the Tribunal.  The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is an independent court of law established at the request of the Government of Lebanon, with a clear mandate from the Security Council.  That statement has been distributed to you.

**Lebanon — Humanitarian

And staying in Lebanon, two weeks after the explosions in Beirut, we, along with our humanitarian partners, are continuing to provide emergency assistance to those most in need.  The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) supported mobile medical units which are providing first aid services to dozens of women impacted by the explosions and distributed almost 2,000 dignity kits for pregnant women.  For its part, our colleagues at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) are providing cash‑for-work assistance to help 200 people who are food insecure in Beirut.  This work includes cleaning and maintenance of public areas affected by the explosions.  Our partners are also working to protect more than 40,000 vulnerable men, women, girls and boys.  They are also helping people to access mental health services and psychosocial support.

**Lebanon — Refugees

The High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, began a four-day visit to Beirut today to support and listen to the people of Lebanon, as well as to migrants and refugees impacted by the devastating blast.  This is Mr. Grandi’s first field mission since the COVID-19 lockdown.  The visit reaffirms the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) solidarity and commitment to Lebanon.  Relative to its national population, Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees in the world.  UNHCR is concerned about the impacts of a severe economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic on those refugees.  Together with the impact of the Beirut port blast, these three factors are harming the most vulnerable and poorest parts of the population throughout the country.  While in Lebanon, the High Commissioner will see the response in the most impacted neighbourhoods.  He will also review UNHCR’s overall humanitarian response in northern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, where UNHCR has helped to expand hospitals and ICU capacity in public hospitals to address the pandemic.  He will also meet with Syrian refugees, who have been severely impacted by the economic crisis and the COVID-19 measures.

**Yemen

Back in New York, this morning, the Security Council held a closed videoconference on Yemen.  The Acting Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ramesh Rajasingham, briefed members, telling them that we continue to work with the Houthi de facto authorities to expedite the UN mission to the Safer oil tanker.  We all share the same objective of preventing a major catastrophe from the tanker, and the UN remains eager to assist.  On 16 August, the de facto authorities issued permits for mission personnel to travel to Yemen, following the official UN request that was issued on 14 July.  This is an important step forward.  It came after several exchanges with the de facto authorities to reconfirm the UN mission’s technical scope and expertise.  When issuing the travel permits, the de facto authorities also sent a detailed list of equipment and supplies they want the team to bring, as well as specific repairs they expect the team to complete.  Then UN technical experts are reviewing these latest requests now to confirm feasibility, as well as any implications on timelines.  The immediate priority is to deploy to the site as quickly as possible to conduct the technical assessment.  This will provide unbiased evidence of the way forward.  We also want to complete whatever feasible initial repairs that can be safely undertaken during that mission.

We are optimistic that this work can get started as quickly as possible, and we hope to have the final clearances — beyond the entry permits for the team — that we hope they will likewise be forthcoming.  As you know, a spill from the tanker would primarily impact people in the area controlled by the de facto authorities, who bear the responsibility to meet these people’s essential needs.  A spill would devastate coastal communities and could close Hudaydah port for months.  This would basically cut off millions of Yemenis from reliable access to food and other essential items — nearly all of which must be imported.  The tragic explosions in Beirut earlier this month underline the urgency of resolving the threat posed by the tanker.  The recent oil spill in Mauritius — which leaked only a tiny fraction of what is onboard the Safer — makes this even clearer.  Also briefing was the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, Special Envoy for Yemen.  And yes, I did ask for Mr. Griffiths to brief, but he will not be able to do so on this particular occasion.

**Burkina Faso

And turning to Burkina Faso, where our humanitarian colleagues tell us that the country has reached a tragic milestone, with more than 1 million people forced to flee their homes because of violence.  The new data, published by national authorities yesterday, includes 453,000 people displaced since the beginning of 2020.  According to UNHCR, 1 in 20 people in the country are displaced.  Burkina Faso is now the world’s fastest-growing humanitarian and protection crisis.  The agency says that attacks by armed groups in the north and east of the country have forced people to move multiple times.  The regions of Centre Nord and Sahel host about 76 per cent of the displaced.  In this context, host populations are at a breaking point as they share the few resources they have, while also facing poverty, strained health services and rapidly disappearing livelihoods.  The additional impact of COVID-19 is clearly devastating.  Shelter, food, water, protection and health services are desperately needed, said UNHCR, which, as you can imagine, is appealing for more support.  And education is also a priority.

**Central African Republic

Turning to the Central African Republic, our colleagues there report that the UN peacekeepers took control of the town of Koui, in the north-west Prefecture of Ouham-Pendé.  This has forced combatants from the armed group Retour, Réclamations, Réhabilitation — better known as 3R — to leave the city.  Three key positions of the armed group located between Koui and Bocaranga were also taken over by peacekeepers with no casualties reported among blue helmets and civilians.  The UN force is currently patrolling in the city, where the situation remains relatively calm.  As a reminder, following a growing threat and attacks by members of the 3R, MINUSCA and the Central African armed forces launched a joint military operation last June to protect civilians and restore State authorities in the country’s north-west.  This includes the important task of securing the voter registration exercise ahead of the [December] 2020 presidential and legislative elections.

**Gordon Brown Letter

In a letter sent on behalf of 280 leaders from all walks of life, Gordon Brown, the Special Envoy [on] Global Education, called for urgent action to address the emergency triggered by COVID-19.  The letter — addressed to the members of the G20, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and others — said there is a real danger that the health crisis will create a COVID generation who lose out on schooling and whose opportunities are permanently damaged.  An immediate concern is the fate of an estimated 30 million children who, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), may never return to school.  Gordon Brown and the leaders who signed the letter are calling on the G20, the IMF, the World Bank and regional development banks and all countries to recognize the scale of the crisis and to support the initiative to enable catch-up to happen and progress towards the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals related to education to be resumed.  The proposed initiatives include a pledge signed by every country to protect frontline education spending, to increase in international aid for education, and funding from the IMF.

**COVID-19 — Children

A new survey by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has found that children are at increased risk of violence, exploitation and abuse because the pandemic has severely disrupted violence prevention and response services.  Of 136 countries which responded to the survey, 104 of them said services related to violence against children had been disrupted.  UNICEF’s Executive Director Henrietta Fore said the ongoing school closures and movement restrictions have left some children stuck at home with increasingly stressed abusers.  She added that the subsequent impact on protection services and social workers means children have nowhere to turn for help.  More on UNICEF’s website.

**Video Games

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) today said that developers and CEOs from 11 video gaming companies committed to integrating environmental storylines and messages into live games that will reach 250 million players around the world, including my children.  This [is the] result of the first Green Mobile Game Jam, which took place from March to April this year, and which was supported by UNEP.  The participants of the Jam were asked to address themes ranging from climate change, supporting action around reforestation and restoring nature to exploring how games can integrate education on renewable energy.  The full list of games which includes Subway Surfer, Angry Birds 2 and Golf Clash can be seen on UNEP’s website.

**World Humanitarian Day

Finally, I want to flag that tomorrow, 19 August, is World Humanitarian Day.  As you know it was on 19 August 2003 in Baghdad that terrorists rammed a truck bomb into the Canal Hotel, which at the time served as the UN headquarters in Iraq.  As a result, 22 of our colleagues were killed, with many, many more being injured.  In his message for the day, the Secretary-General will stress that humanitarian workers are being stretched like never before as they respond to the global crisis of COVID-19 and the massive increase in humanitarian needs resulting from the fallout of the pandemic.  And as part of the Day’s commemoration, the Real Life Heroes campaign is paying tribute to those humanitarians who are treating and preventing COVID-19; providing food to vulnerable people in need; providing safe spaces for women and girls in lockdown; delivering babies; fighting locusts; and running refugee camps — all during the pandemic.  Many of these people are often in need themselves, like many refugees who are helping their host communities.  All right.  Thank you again for your patience.  Let's go to the chat. Nizar has a question, and then we'll go to Sylviane.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Good afternoon, first.  My question is regarding the explosion of Beirut.  I understand, from the 7 August briefing, that the United Nations knew about the existence of this material, dangerous material long ago, and the source of knowledge was from the media.  The investigation recently has established that there has been some knowledge from UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon], which inspected the ship before offloading its cargo in the seaport of Beirut.  Can you confirm, first of all, what media source did you rely on, number two, whether UNIFIL reacted… inspected that shift and allowed it to float in the…?

Spokesman:  Nizar, first of all, thank you for asking the question, because it's important that we clarify things.  First of all, the implications in that story are completely false.  I'm not going to comment on the ongoing judicial process, but what I can say clearly is that the UN force UNIFIL does not board and conduct physical inspections of ships, nor does it have the responsibility to authorize entry into Lebanese ports.  The role of UNIFIL and especially its Maritime Task Force is to hail ships that are approaching Lebanon and refer these ships to the Lebanese authorities, who carry out inspections independently.  Therefore, this is more of a question you should raise with the Lebanese authorities.  Okay.

Question:  A follow‑up.  Excuse me.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yeah.  Go ahead.  Go ahead.

Question:  A follow‑up.  You mentioned, on 7 August, that you knew about this nitrate ammonium from media reports.  However, all search for media reports on that subject have not been material, have not resulted in any positive outcome.  Can you reveal to us your sources, your media sources, that you knew about it?

Spokesman:  I have nothing more to add than what I said on that date.

Question:  Okay.  Can you find out for me later on…?

Spokesman:  If I find more, I will let you know, yeah.  Sylviane, and then Toby.

Question:  Thank you.  Thank you, Stéphane.  I'm just asking the question regarding… if during the… because of the blast, is there any intention from the Secretary‑General to go to Lebanon to visit the ground?

Spokesman:  I think, if the… if he… let me just say, at this point, there are no plans.  Obviously, the Secretary‑General's travel is very much curtailed due to the restrictions of the COVID‑19 virus.  But, I can tell you that the Secretary‑General has a special place in his heart for Lebanon and for the generosity that the Lebanese people have shown over the years to all those who have sought refuge in Lebanon, and he very much calls on everyone to show solidarity and to repay all the Lebanese people for all they've done for others.

Question:  But, don't you think that his presence would be a show of… a very strong show of solidarity?  It's not small things…

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General is not… I completely agree.  There is, as I said, there are restrictions for the Secretary‑General's travel at this point.  Others can travel because they are based in other countries.  I think the last thing the Secretary‑General wants to do is to violate any public health requirements, any public health policies.  As you know, he did travel to… he was on leave.  He went home.  He travelled to Portugal.  He came back here.  He's on a strict two‑week quarantine, and he followed whatever… the health regulations in Portugal, as well.  So, at this point, travel to other countries is limited and, if not, completely curtailed for the Secretary‑General, but that does not change his emotions towards the people of Lebanon.  Okay.  Did you have another question, Sylviane?  I can't hear you.

Question:  Now?  On the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, do you believe… do you think that it's… the Secretary‑General, he has taken note, only taken note.  Don't you think that we need more and stronger statement than this one?  Because everybody is, like, shocked by the verdict.

Spokesman:  Well, you know… look, this was a tribunal set up at the request of the Government of Lebanon with a mandate from the Security Council.  It's independent of the Secretary‑General.  It is not for him to approve or disapprove judgements rendered by international courts.  So, I would just refer you to the statement that we said but, as underscored, that he notes the independence and impartiality for… of this court, and you know, it is not for him to comment and to analyse the statements.  Others can do that.  Okay, Iftikhar.  Iftikhar, and then Maria?

Question:  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you, Steph.  Having finally granted visas by the Houthis for the UN mission for the inspection of the disabled ship.  Are there more barriers to cross before the inspection begins?

Spokesman:  Yes, we do not, just to be clear, we do not have all the required clearances and permissions from the Ansarullah, from the de facto authorities.  They did issue travel, permits for travel.  It's an important step forward, but we still… we do not have all the green lights because when they issued the travel permits, they also submitted new questions, detailed list of equipment, and so forth.  So, as soon as we have… as all the lights are green and we're able to travel, we will do so, but we're not there yet, unfortunately.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  You're very welcome.  Maria Khrenova, and then Toby Burns.

Question:  Actually, Stéphane, I didn't ask for the question, but it was just a small note to my colleagues.  As I got your attention anyway, you didn’t mention the situation in Belarus today, and I'm always worried about it so…?

Spokesman:  We all, I think we all remain concerned by the situation, but I have nothing more to say than…

Question:  Yeah, but the question is that the President of Belarus stated several times that, in his opinion, it's that Russia, from outside, from foreign countries, which provoked the protests.  So, I wonder if the UN thinks this is the case.

Spokesman:  No, I mean, that's not for, you know, it's not for us to comment on what the President said.  We are looking at the situation as it is.  We've, our Resident Coordinator there has expressed her serious concern directly to the Government.  We've always been very clear in our belief that grievances of the people must be heard and that there should be no repression of people as they peacefully express those opinions.  As to foreign intervention, it's not something, it's not something for me to comment on.  Okay, Toby.

Question:  Hi.  Thanks very much, Stéphane.  I have three questions for you, and I'll take them one by one because they're on different topics.  The first one is on Mali.  Can you just tell us a little bit more about who MINUSMA is in touch with there on the ground?  Have there by any changes in the working operations between MINUSMA and the local authorities?

Spokesman:  Yeah, I mean, obviously, a couple of things.  On a logistical level, we have limited the movements of UN staff, given the uncertainty of the unfolding situation.  We are in touch with all… sorry.  We are in touch with all the relevant actors.  I can tell you that the Secretary‑General himself has been on the phone twice with President Issoufou, the President of Niger, who is the head of the committee of Heads of States of ECOWAS to talk about the situation.  He's been in touch with the SRSG, the Special Representative, as well.  So, everyone is talking to whoever they need to speak to.  It is very important that the international community act as one, and that's why we're in touch with ECOWAS, with the European Union, the African Union, obviously, and others.  But, the situation on the ground remains very fluid.

Question:  Thanks.  Second question is on Yemen and the Safer tanker.  Whose court is the ball in now, because we're still waiting for permissions, but yet we're also, the UN is also assessing technical questions.  So, where does the agency and the interaction lie at the…?

Spokesman:  The dialogue is continuing.  I'd rather not look at this in a, as a tennis or ping pong game.  The discussions are continuing.  The Ansarullah have asked questions.  We're trying to answer them.  I mean, it is kind of a constant dialogue.  They are raising questions.  We are trying to answer them as quickly as possible.  What is important for us is really to get that initial assessment team in there to do whatever repairs they can quickly, kind of just the most urgent repairs.  Then, obviously, they will probably need for a much bigger operation, but you have a patient that's bleeding, so they need some trauma care, and then they'll, obviously, need some more long‑term care to save the ship and avoid a catastrophe.

Question:  And then, finally, today, in Vienna, the US Ambassador for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, he sort of laid out prospect of a framework agreement between the US and Russia.  This is vis‑à‑vis to the New START Treaty and the potential of extending it, that maybe then China would agree to, later on down the line.  Do you have a comment on how these three great Powers should be interacting now when it comes to arms control?  Like, what…?

Spokesman:  It, it's not for us to get inside whatever negotiations may be happening, which we're not dealing, which we're not involved in.  What is important for us is a result and we need a… and this has been the Secretary‑General's position for some time.  He's been worried about the dismantling of arms control, of nuclear proliferation, so we need to strengthen those regimes in whatever way we can, and any movement forward would be welcome.  Abdelhamid Siyam?

Question:  Thank you so much, Stéphane.  First, I want to thank you for your tweet, and I hope that Billy and I will one day live as neighbours and friends, but not as occupier and occupied.  I have two questions.  The first question on the outcome of the court on Lebanon, as it is mandated by the Security Council, what role now the Security Council is supposed to play?  Would he take note?  Would he issue a statement?  From your understanding, I mean, what role the Security Council supposed to do for this…?

Spokesman:  That's a question for the presidency.  I mean, the work of the Tribunal is not over.  There's, obviously, appeal processes, and there are other procedures in place.  I mean, they're operating under a mandate.  I don't know if there is any role for the Security Council at this point, but that's a question maybe to ask the presidency.

Question:  Okay.  Thank you.  And the second is about Libya.  Recently, the two Defence Ministers of Turkey and Qatar had just… had visited Tripoli, and they met with the officials in the Government of National Accord.  That is an indication that maybe tension is rising.  Do you have any update on what's going on, especially in that region between Sirte and Ras Lanuf?

Spokesman:  No.  Abdelhamid, it's a very valid question.  I haven't had an update in a couple of days, but we will ask for one.  Okay.  Anyone else?  Again, I'm really sorry for having kept all of you this long.  Unless there's a question, I shall end, and we shall meet again tomorrow.

For information media. Not an official record.