The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
Good afternoon. Can you all hear me? Wave if you can. Excellent. My computer, I feel, is on its last legs, but we will give it a try.
Let me start with Mali. Our peacekeeping colleagues there report that the security situation in Bamako remains relatively calm, with no major security incidents. While banks and large businesses have remained closed, most local shops and markets have reopened. We reiterate our call to reject violence, to respect the rule of law and to preserve the rights of all Malians, including those of the President and the senior Government officials who remain in detention. We also repeat our call for the immediate release of President Keita and the members of his Government. The constitutional and democratic order must be restored as fast as possible.
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) remains deeply committed to implementing its mandate in support of the Malian peace process and the Malian people. In this regard, the Mission stresses the need for full freedom of movement to allow the UN to carry out its mandate, to ensure the rotation of uniformed personnel, as well as medical evacuations in particular. Now, as our work continues, we are receiving reports just a few minutes ago that four peacekeepers were injured this morning when their logistics convoy was impacted by an explosion near Gao. As soon as we have more information to share with you, we will.
Back in the Security Council in New York, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia, James Swan, briefed members of the Council. He told the diplomats that Somalia, like the rest of the world, is focused on confronting the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic is also having a severely negative economic impact in the country, with the Government projecting an 11 per cent decline in gross domestic product (GDP) this year. Mr. Swan added that the UN is working to reinforce the Government’s response. UN agencies, funds and programmes have reoriented their activities to give priority to the pandemic. But even before the virus, Mr. Swan stressed that more than 5 million Somalis were already in need of humanitarian assistance. 2.6 million people in the country are internally displaced, and 1 million are now being impacted by flooding. The country is also dealing with the worst desert locust infestation in 25 years. He added that the coming weeks will be decisive in determining how Somalia will proceed with the planned elections, adding that the UN will continue to support the country in this process.
And today, the UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, Najat Rochdi, announced that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had begun the disbursement of $8.5 million from the Lebanon Humanitarian Fund to provide rapid support to families impacted by the devastating explosions in the Beirut port. More than 180,000 people are now being reached with life-saving humanitarian assistance, including through funding to NGOs delivering health, food assistance and protection. The $8.5 million allocation is complementing $6 million allocated by the Central Emergency Response Fund, announced by Mark Lowcock two weeks ago in fact.
**Central African Republic
And turning to the Central African Republic, the UN peacekeepers there are continuing their technical, logistical operations in support to the preparation of the country’s presidential and legislative elections, scheduled for 27 December of this year. As part of his good offices, the Head of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), Mankeur Ndiaye, met with the country’s authorities and members of the opposition earlier this week to discuss the political situation, as well as the electoral process. That includes the ongoing voter registration operation. The UN Mission is also providing security assistance to the national electoral management body, which includes protection and transport of the electoral material, as well as security for voter registration agents in the 16 prefectures that make up the country.
Now, a couple of COVID-19 specific notes. In Syria, we remain concerned about the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the country. As of this morning, the Syrian Ministry of Health confirmed that 1,927 people tested positive for the virus. That includes sadly 78 deaths and 445 people who have recovered. In the northwest, 58 cases were confirmed, as of yesterday, with the first death reported two days ago in the district of Harim, in Idleb Governorate on 18 August. The World Health Organization (WHO) is leading UN preparedness and mitigation measures across Syria, including in the country’s north-west and in the north.
In the Comoros, there are more than 400 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 7 deaths. The UN team, led by acting Resident Coordinator Marcel Ouattara, continues to provide support to national authorities to boost its health and socioeconomic response to the pandemic. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and WHO are providing support to the ministries of health and education in the procurement of transport and distribution of clean water, protective equipment, medical and sanitizing supplies to hospitals and schools, while the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) collaborated with youth associations to install hundreds of handwashing stations across the country. On the socioeconomic side, our friends at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) put out a study on the impact of the virus on vulnerable populations and businesses, while working with the national chamber of commerce to assess the impact of the crisis on the private sector and formulate an inclusive recovery plan. For its part, UNICEF continues to organize programmes to support the most vulnerable children and mothers across the country, ensuring continued access to education, sanitation and nutrition.
**Reopening Schools in Africa
And in a survey conducted in sub-Saharan Africa by WHO, the survey has found that schools are fully open only in 6 of the 39 countries surveyed. As a result, WHO and UNICEF are urging governments in Africa to promote the safe reopening of schools while taking measures to limit the spread of the virus. They say the impact of extended education disruption is significant. Poor nutrition, increased exposure to violence, childhood pregnancies, and overall challenges in children’s mental development are some of the consequences faced by children.
As you may have seen the sad news, on Monday this week, at least 45 migrants and refugees, including 5 children, died in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya. This is the largest recorded shipwreck in this area this year. In a statement, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are calling for a review of the international community’s approach to this type of situation, adding there is an urgent need to strengthen the current search and rescue capacity to respond to distress calls. UNHCR and IOM are also calling on Libyan authorities to take firm steps against smugglers and traffickers. Some 37 survivors of this week’s shipwreck — mainly from Senegal, Mali, Chad and Ghana — were rescued by local fishermen and later detained upon disembarkation in Libya.
Turning to Asia, a strong monsoon season has caused floods and landslides over the past week resulting in hundreds of casualties, the displacement of millions of people, and the destruction of infrastructure. These natural disasters are hitting countries already facing the COVID-19 pandemic and the socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic. The UN, the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations are supporting the Government-led responses in several countries despite challenges in travel and access to people in need, due to COVID‑19. Some of the most impacted countries have been Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and China. In Bangladesh, our colleagues tell us that humanitarian organizations are providing shelter and rapid food assistance in Cox’s Bazaar, as well as repairs to damaged water, sanitation and education facilities. In Pakistan, we are monitoring the situation in case support from the UN is required, and in Nepal and China, authorities are continuing their search and rescue operations, in conjunction with humanitarian organizations.
**Mauritius Oil Spill
And our friends at the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) today said that the oil spill off the coast of Mauritius illustrates how small island nations face an existential and developmental threat from pollution of ships endangering their vulnerable marine ecosystems and ocean economies. UNCTAD said the incident highlighted the need for universal participation in the international framework to provide support when environmental disaster strikes and ensure small island developing States are protected. The seas and their use are governed by several international conventions, but not all are ratified by all countries that might benefit, and others are yet to enter into force. This creates murky waters when oil spills happen, as not all parties have the same liability and compensation recourse, depending on which kinds of ships are responsible for the pollution and whether they have signed up to existing conventions. More, obviously, is available online.
And finally, I’m delighted to announce today a payment from our friends in Burundi, becoming the 110th country to pay its regular budget dues in full. All right. Let's see what we can do here in terms of questions. Bear with me two seconds. I do still have some technical issues here. I apologize, but something's not working. Bear with me. All right. Edie, why don't you go ahead and ask your question.
**Questions and Answers
Question: Thank you very much, and sorry you can't see me. I'm actually at the UN Headquarters for the first time since mid‑March and haven't figured out how to get the camera on on this computer. Steph, I have two questions. First, the Belarus prosecutor has opened a probe against opposition activists, and I wondered whether the Secretary‑General has any…?
Spokesman: Sorry. I didn't hear, which country were you referring to?
Question: I'm referring to Belarus. The Prosecutor there has opened a possible prosecution against opponents, opposition, activists against the Government, and I wondered whether the Secretary‑General had any comment on that? And then I have another question.
Spokesman: Our comment… our [inaudible] remain the same, which is that it's very important that people be allowed to express themselves freely, express their political opinions freely and free of any harassment, whether that be violent or in other ways. And your other question?
Question: My other question is about the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who collapsed in a coma amid suspicion that he might have been poisoned, and I wondered whether the UN had any comment on that.
Spokesman: Yes. I think we're following with concern the reports that Mr. Navalny has a sudden illness. We, obviously, wish him a speedy recovery. I think any allegations of suspected poisoning, if confirmed, should be fully investigated. Okay? Any other, hold on a second. This is not my technical day. Okay. Let's go to the chat box. Okay. Iftikhar, you had a question and then Evelyn.
Question: Thanks, Steph. Just wanted to know where… when the report of the Secretary‑General on the work of the organization will be released?
Spokesman: A bit… prob… late August, early September, but I need to check on that for you. Okay? Stefano Vaccara, please.
Question: Thank you very much. Yes. First question is what happened in the Mediterranean yesterday, actually not yesterday, on 17 August. Does the Secretary‑General have some new advice for Governments, like Italy, Malta, European countries, of how they should handle the crisis in the Mediterranean of the migrants and refugees in order to prevent something that is happening the last… practically over 10 years and every summer we are here counting the deaths. So, there is any new advice, anything that the Secretary‑General wish that those countries, the European countries, will do in this situation?
Spokesman: Our concern sadly remains the same, because we're seeing, again and again, people die on the high seas. I think it is very important, first, to recognize that Libya is not a safe place for refugees and migrants and that countries need to live up to their obligations under international law, international refugee law, and everyone, whether a refugee, whether a migrant, needs to be treated with respect and needs to be given safety.
Question: Yeah. I'm sorry. A quick follow‑up. Maybe my question wasn't clear now. In the past, the Secretary‑General, also because he was former leader of the UNHCR, he knows very well the issue, he complained. He complained and accused European country not doing enough, not doing enough on the rescue operations and the resolved the problem so any new idea the Secretary‑General can give them?
Spokesman: I think… sadly, the situation remains the same and the Secretary‑General's position remains the same. All right. Evelyn.
Question: Hello. Can you hear me?
Question: Hi, Steph. On Syria, are there any… is there any special protection for the UN workers there that you described? Because there are clashes all over the place, from Turkey, from ISIS, from… in several… several areas in the last week.
Spokesman: No, the safety of our staff is paramount. Obviously, each situation is being analysed independently, and we take the security precautions that we need to take to make sure people are safe. But, obviously, we continue to stand and deliver in what are essentially war zones. Gloria?
Question: Thank you. My question is regarding Mali and Libya, where the virus exists. Is the rate higher in the city, or have we had any reports on the rebels? Because, if they began getting really sick, they may decide to be less rebellious.
Spokesman: Well, that could be. I mean, the problem is that, whether it's in Libya or Mali or anyplace else, it is very difficult to get accurate counts of virus infections in places where there's limited access, not only for the UN, but for State authorities. Okay. Any other questions? I did get a… go ahead, Stefano, and then I have… I've gotten a question I need to answer.
Question: Yes, yes. I want to ask again about Mario Paciolla. Any news about the autopsy? I mean, we’re waiting for any news about it, and I wonder… I'm… I think that the UN knows something. I just I wonder when they will share it.
Spokesman: No, we're continuing to cooperate with the Italian authorities, who've requested information from us within the framework of their investigation, and we're in the process of responding. Okay?
Question: Responding? UN in process of responding?
Spokesman: To them, yes. I mean, the Italians have had questions, and we're responding to them.
Question: Do you know when exactly you will respond?
Spokesman: No. I mean, we're in dialogue with the Italian authorities. I did get a question from one of your colleagues asking me about the press reports that the Secretary‑General had a phone call with Foreign Minister Zarif. I can confirm that he did speak to him this morning. The phone call was focussed obviously on the issue of Yemen but also on Iran. And I want to correct a mistake that is in one of the media reports that… one of the media reports says the Secretary‑General had said that Washington, D.C., had no basis of action under resolution 2231 (2015). That is incorrect. It was not the Secretary‑General who said that but the Foreign Minister. I will leave it at that. And unless anybody waves a question at me, we will talk to you later. Toby, you have a question. Kristen, you have a question. Yes?
Question: Sorry, Steph. I just want to clarify on that last point, Foreign Minister Zarif and the Secretary‑General spoke about Yemen and what else?
Spokesman: And Iran. And the situation regarding, obviously, the situation du jour. The press report from one of the Iranian agencies attributed comments to the Secretary‑General that he did not make. Kristen, please.
Question: Yes. The Secretary‑General is supposed to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today. What will the Secretary‑General's message be?
Spokesman: Well, the US side asked for the meeting. They will open up the discussion, and then the Secretary‑General will respond, but I don't want to get ahead of my boss.
Question: Does the Secretary‑General still support the JCPOA? I know the United States is against it. Can you tell us what his position is?
Spokesman: On that, the Secretary‑General's position and underscoring the importance of the JCPOA as an important diplomatic achievement remains unchanged. Okay? Until Ibtisam speaks, you're on the screen, Kristen.
Question: Sorry. Yes. Hi, Steph. Thank you. I have a question on the same topic. If the Secretary‑General would be asked by the Security Council to give… to his office to give a legal opinion regarding…
Spokesman: I lost you. I think I know where you were going with the question. Since the question did include an "if" on a very difficult, sensitive subject, I will wait to see if the "if" comes to pass.
Question: No, but the Security Council is probably going to have a deadlock regarding who is in right or wrong. If he is asked by the Security Council to give a legal opinion, is he going to do it?
Spokesman: We, obviously, as a principle, respond to requests from the Security Council, but let's see what the request is, how it's worded and what happens. I don't want to get ahead of my skis, as we say. Okay. All right. Third last call. Excellent. Okay. Talk to you later. Bye.