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26 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.

All right, good afternoon.  We are starting… its 12:03 p.m. as well, this is, this is indeed crazy times.  All right…

**Digital Financing

This morning, the Secretary-General of these United Nations spoke at the launch of the report prepared by his Task Force on the Digital Financing of the Sustainable Development Goals.

He said that, in the midst of the turmoil caused by the pandemic, digital technology is a critical lifeline, enabling billions of people to maintain connections with loved ones, buy daily necessities, preserve their livelihoods and receive government assistance.  Digital technology, he said, can also help kickstart the changes that we need to create stronger, more resilient and inclusive [communities] in the planet, on a healthy planet, excuse me. 

He also highlighted the report’s conclusion that digitalization will make a difference by giving people greater control over how global finance and their own money is used.  He said that he fully endorsed the Task Force’s vision of citizen-centric finance and its conclusion that the digitalization of finance must be inclusive and empowering so it becomes a force for good.

Currently, 3.6 billion people worldwide — including a disproportionate number of women — lack the resources and capabilities to take advantage of the digital world.

The full report is on [the United Nations Development Programme’s] website. 

**Secretary-General — Nineteenth Darbari Seth Memorial Lecture

And, this Friday, I wanted to flag, the Secretary-General will deliver the nineteenth Darbari Seth Memorial lecture.  In his remarks, entitled “The rise of renewables:  shining a light on a sustainable future,” he will renew his call on G20 (Group of 20) countries, including India, to invest in a clean, sustainable transition as they recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Governments mobilize trillions of dollars to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, their decisions will have climate consequences for decades, he is expected to say.

The lecture is organized by TERI, the Energy and Resources Institute, an Indian-based global think tank focusing on a broad range of sustainable development and climate-related issues. 

His remarks will be made available to you in time. 

**United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon

And I have an update for you on the situation along the Blue Line.  Yesterday evening, starting around 11 p.m., the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) observed a number of flares fired from several IDF positions along the Blue Line across from Aytarun, Ayta Ash-Sha’b, Meiss Ej Jebel, Houla, Kfar Kila and Kfar Shouba, all in south Lebanon.

UNIFIL radars also detected mortars and artillery shells, as well as intense UAV activities near these areas.

The Mission immediately activated its liaison and coordination channels and reinforced its troops along the Blue Line.

In follow-up contacts, the Israel Defense Forces claimed there had been small arms fire from Lebanon directed against an IDF patrol in the general area of Manara.

The UNIFIL Head of Mission and Force Commander, Major [General] Stefano Del Col, remains in contact with the parties, urging restraint and requesting that all sides avoid any provocative action that could further escalate tensions and jeopardize the cessation of hostilities.

The Mission has launched an investigation and calls on both parties to fully cooperate with UNIFIL to help determine the facts.

The situation along the Blue Line has since returned to calm and UNIFIL is maintaining continuous presence in the area in coordination with the parties.

**Lebanon

Staying in Lebanon, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that, in the aftermath of the Beirut port explosions, access to health care and food; the rehabilitation of homes; cash assistance; and livelihood support continue to be the top needs.

The UN Development Programme says that 200,000 homes were affected by the explosions, with some 40,000 buildings damaged — of which 3,000 were severely damaged.  The loss of homes often leads to overcrowded households and communities, thus increasing other risks, such as COVID-19 transmission and sexual- and gender-based violence.  More than 4,000 households have received shelter assistance.

We, along with our partners, are continuing to help in need.  Between the 19 and 21 August, more than 60,000 hot meals and food kits and 8,500 gallons of water were provided.  Some 16,500 hygiene and dignity kits were distributed to women and girls, while 4,000 pregnant and breast-feeding women were reached with nutrition assistance.

Lebanon has also seen an increase in COVID-19 transmissions since the explosions, further straining its health systems.  Yesterday, 532 new COVID-19 cases were reported, bringing the total to 13,687, cases including 138 deaths.

And, in addition, some 178 schools were damaged.  The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, continues to work with partners engaged in the rehabilitation of schools. 

Also, regarding UNESCO, its Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, travelled to Lebanon today.

She is expected to meet with people impacted by the explosions and visit schools and historical buildings in Beirut that were heavily damaged by the blasts.

**Gaza

And I have an update on the COVID-19 situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, where our humanitarian colleagues tell us that four cases were detected among members of the same family in Al-Maghazi refugee camp in the Gaza Strip two days ago.

These are the first cases reported outside of quarantine facilities in Gaza.  An additional 11 cases were detected yesterday and today.

To support local authorities, we, along with our partners, are providing essential services for more than 2,200 people in 16 quarantine facilities throughout Gaza.  We are also preparing to transform several quarantine centres into isolation facilities for treatment should there be a substantial rise in the number of cases.

The World Health Organization confirmed that 10 additional ventilators are now available in Gaza, raising the total number to 50.

To date, more than 26,000 people have tested positive for the virus in the occupied Palestinian territory, with 150 deaths.

The humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is already dire.  As you saw yesterday, the Special Coordinator, Nickolay Mladenov, told the Security Council members that the UN has asked Israel to reinstate the delivery of Qatari-funded fuel for the Gaza Strip in order to help prevent a major health crisis, following these reported cases.

**Security Council — Iraq

And, earlier today, you will have seen that the Security Council met in a special video teleconference meeting on Iraq.

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, warned Council members that the COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated deep existing economic, social and political challenges in the country.

She added that poverty has increased by over 10 per cent in recent months.  Food consumption is now insufficient for more than three million Iraqis.  She attributed this to reduced purchasing power and not food scarcity. 

Her remarks have been shared with you.

**COVID-19 — Albania

And, in Albania, the UN team there, led by the acting Resident Coordinator, Pablo Zapata, is boosting the national response to COVID-19 while still addressing the impacts of the devastating earthquake that rocked the country nearly 10 months ago.

The World Health Organization (WHO) continues supporting authorities with testing and treatment protocols, guidelines and life-saving equipment.  Three joint UN programmes are now directly benefiting 3,000 families with life-saving goods, including food and sanitation supplies.

And, for their part, the UN-Women, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) issued guidance to protect the most vulnerable women, men and children during lockdown.  This includes providing undisrupted shelter, access to legal aid and justice, management of domestic violence cases, as well as ensuring remote learning while schools are shut.

**Afghanistan — Floods

And just a quick note from Afghanistan, where our humanitarian colleagues tell us that floods caused by heavy rain since yesterday in the centre and east of the country have killed about 100 people and affected 3,500 more.  500 houses were either partially or completely damaged with reported power and water systems also damaged.

Initial information indicates that the most urgent needs include food, drinking water, medical equipment and medicine, in addition to resources for clean-up and search and rescue.

We, along with our humanitarian partners, are supporting the response led by local authorities.

This year, more than 55,000 people have been affected by natural disasters in Afghanistan, which is already facing the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic. 

**Africa — Hunger

And our friends at the World Food Programme (WFP) today warned that millions of refugees across Eastern Africa, who rely on the agency to survive, will face serious hunger and malnutrition. 

This is due to vital donor funding being reduced due to the socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

WFP has already been forced to reduce food or cash transfers between 10 to 30 per cent for more than 2.7 million refugees in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, and Djibouti. 

The agency says it will be forced to cut deeper in the coming months if more funds are not received in time.

And WFP needs $323 million to assist refugees in the region over the next six months, and this amount is 22 per cent greater than during the same period last year.

**Secretary-General — Myanmar

And you saw that last night we issued a statement on Myanmar to mark the three years since the start of the largest and most recent forced displacement of Rohingya and other communities from Rakhine State.

The Secretary-General renewed his call to bring greater urgency to this crisis by addressing the root causes of the conflict and creating the conditions for the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of all refugees.

And that statement was shared with you.

**International Day against Nuclear Tests

And the International Day against Nuclear Tests is marked on 29 August.  In a message, the Secretary-General noted that this year the Day marks 75 years since the first-ever nuclear test, code-named Trinity, was undertaken in the United States.

The Secretary-General said that, since then, more than 2,000 nuclear tests have been conducted by at least eight countries.  These had profound, harmful and long-lasting impacts on the environment, human health and economic development of some of the world’s most fragile regions.

He pointed out that, despite these impacts and the widespread global support for a legally binding prohibition, the Comprehensive-Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty has yet to enter into force.  Once again, he urged all States that have not signed or ratified the Treaty to do so.

For the Secretary-General, a complete ban on nuclear testing is an essential step in preventing the qualitative and quantitative improvement of nuclear weapons and in achieving nuclear disarmament.

**Questions and Answers

Yes, sir.

Correspondent:  Thank you, Stéphane, and welcome back.

Spokesman:  Thank you.

Question:  I have a couple of questions on Lebanon.  So, the mandate of UNIFIL ends the end of this month, in five days, and negotiations are still ongoing.  One country is asking to… for a timeline, to endorse a timeline for the recommendations of the Secretary‑General regarding the implementation of 1701.  I wonder whether you have anything to say about that.

And, second, there are a lot of voices in Lebanon asking the UN and the international community not to pass any aid, any money through the corrupt political class in Lebanon.  Is the UN doing anything to avoid any misconduct regarding the help it is trying to give to Lebanon?

Spokesman:  Yeah, sure, a couple of things.  We're well aware that the discussions on UNIFIL are really going down to the wire.  I think the Secretary‑General has been very clear in the importance of the role that UNIFIL plays.  I mean, we see it today.  Right?  There are incidents.  The Force Commander, General Del Col, is able to liaise between the IDF, the Lebanese Armed Forces.  It's a critical role.  It's hard to imagine what would happen if UNIFIL was not there.

We very much hope that Member States come together and agree on a text to allow for the continuation of the critical job that UNIFIL does along the Blue Line in Lebanon.

On your second part, the UN, the UN is running a lot of its own operations.  As always, when UN funds are involved, there is a lot of monitoring that's going on.

Question:  Just a follow‑up:  Are there any contingency plans should the Security Council members fail in five days to reach an agreement on…

Spokesman:  Well… 

Question:  …on UNIFIL?

And the second question also, follow‑up on whether the UN has been conducting any investigation regarding the explosion at the…

Spokesman:  No, we have, we are not conducting an investigation into the explosion.  There is… it's being led by the Lebanese authorities.  We have said we stand ready to assist and to help.

On UNIFIL contingency plans, it's pretty clear — either there's a mandate or there's no mandate, so…

Madame, and then we'll go to Talal.  Yes.

Question:  Good to see you again in person.  Does the Secretary‑General have any reaction to the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and Iran signing a deal and Iran allowing inspections at two facilities?  How significant is that?

Spokesman:  Look, I will leave it to analysts and to you to measure the significance of it.  What is important is that an agreement is reached, that the IAEA is pleased with the agreement.  They're in the lead on this, and we obviously support them fully.

Talal.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane, and congratulations on this historic day, and, we hope, better days to come. 

My first question is on Libya.  The initiative of Serraj and the GNA for a ceasefire has been rejected by the LNA, claiming that the militia belonging to the GNA are gathering forces to attack Sirte and that ships, Turkish ships, are approaching the Sirte shorelines.  Where are we now in Libya, vis‑à‑vis this initiative, a ceasefire, a possibility of a ceasefire?

My second question, I don't know if you can comment, but I would like to ask you this.  Yesterday, the Council President, the Ambassador of Indonesia, has said that he cannot go further with the American, the US request for a return of the international sanctions on Iran because of divisions within the Council, and I'm quoting him here.  Do, does the [Secretary-General] has a view on this?  Is that a normal… I mean, there's nothing normal about snapback, but is this the Security Council President can state an opinion?  Doesn't he have to go with the procedures that is set by the Council?

Spokesman:  Yeah, I mean, I'm sorry.  Repeat that last part.  Who… does who has to go…

Question:  The President of the Security Council.

Spokesman:  Oh.

Question:  Doesn't he have to follow the procedures regardless of the feelings of members?

Spokesman:  Listen, it's not for us to comment on what the President can't do or can do.  That is… I mean, the Council has always been master of its affairs.  We will await what the final decision and process is, but this is something that Member States themselves have to agree on and the Coun… and I'm not going to get into the Council's current situation.

On Libya, what I can tell you is that our acting Special Representative, Stephanie Williams, is in the region continuing her outreach and her contacts with different Libyan parties, regional partners, international partners in order to push for continued support for a nationwide ceasefire, as outlined in the recent declarations we saw from Prime Minister Serraj and the speaker of the House of Representatives. 

She will be meeting, over the next couple of days, in person with a number of these critical actors.  We continue to do whatever we can to push the parties towards a cessation of hostilities, and we have been very clear at the disastrous impact that continued military operations will have, especially around a populated centre like Sirte.

Question:  If I may add, when is it time to have a Permanent Representative in Libya, and what is the holdup?

Spokesman:  The time is now.  The holdup is that there are discussions going on, but the Secretary‑General is determined to continue to, to continue this process.  Obviously, it's a process that also involves the Security Council. 

In the meantime, Stephanie Williams, as the acting [Special Representative of the Secretary-General], is working with the full backing and the full support of the Secretary‑General and, we very much hope, all Member States.

Question:  But don't you agree it's taking way too long?

Spokesman:  I definitely would not [inaudible] with that statement.

All right.  We're having a little… okay.  What I realize, I don't have access to a chat function.  So, we'll go to our online journalists.  If somebody wants to turn on their video and wave some hands, I can pick somebody out.  Or maybe just open up your microphone?  There we go, all right.  So who…

Correspondent:  [inaudible]

Correspondent:  Go ahead, Edie.  You're on video.

Correspondent:  Okay.

Spokesman:  Edie, and then Abdelhamid.

Correspondent:  Thank you. 

Spokesman:  And then we'll go to you, Pam.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  A couple of questions.  Does the Secretary‑General have any comment on Yemen's Southern Transitional Council suspending its talks with the Government today? And…

Spokesman:  Yeah, and your other question?  Yeah.

Question:  Secondly, is there any update on when the suspended Syria talks of the small Constitutional Committee are going to resume?  As you know, they were paused because several members tested positive for COVID and…

Spokesman:  No, on your second question, not at this point.  Mr. Pedersen is continuing his consultations, but I, my understanding is to expect something from his office a bit later on this afternoon.

We've obviously, on Yemen, we're, we've, obviously, seen the latest developments concerning the Southern Transitional Council.  Our message is clear, is that we urge the Southern Transitional Council and the Government of Yemen to remain committed to continuing to work with each other on the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, which is, in itself, an important step forward for the wider resumption of political talks in Yemen.

Question:  And just a housekeeping issue, whatever happened to the UNTV broadcast of the launch of the digital financing for the SDG…

Spokesman:  We're going to try… we've put out the speech.  We're trying to… there was an issue with the video.  We're trying to get it posted. 

The remarks were as, as he delivered them, were shared with you, but we're trying to get the video. 

Okay, Abdelhamid, then Pam. 

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have two questions.  Talal took one of them, about Libya.  Maybe I just add to Talal question on Libya.  Since Ghassan Salamé resigned in March, it's been over five months, and normally, it doesn't take that long.  When the Security Council blocked the nomination of [inaudible], I think a matter of two months, the Secretary‑General came up with Ghassan Salamé and [inaudible].  That is my follow‑up to Talal. 

But my question, Stéphane, about tension in east… in the east Mediterranean Sea, the [inaudible] has been mediating with Greece and Turkey.  And apparently, it was not successful Greece.  Greece, Italy, France and Cyprus announced today they will be conducting naval exercise in the eastern Mediterranean, which will increase the tension. 

I mean, we haven't heard from the Secretary‑General on this major development.  Is he involved?  Is he contacting and is he making phone calls?  Is he issuing any statement on the matter?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  I mean, we've, obviously, been following these developments in the eastern Mediterranean.  I think it's important, given the number of parties engaged, as you noted, different military exercises or manoeuvres, that all the parties involved engage in dialogue and solve their differences in accordance with the principles enshrined in the Charter.  So, I will leave it at that for now.

And maybe you can fix your mic because it's very difficult to hear you.  I heard enough keywords to be able to answer the question, but your microphone is a bit garbled.

Pamela. 

Question:  Hi, Steph, good to see you back at Headquarters.  My question is about UNGA, various questions about UNGA 75.  Number one, the Secretary‑General, I assume, is coming back from, or is back from self‑quarantine and will be there.  Can you tell us a little bit about what his role will be?  He'll be there in person?  He'll have stakeouts, press conferences… 

Spokesman:  Yeah, I mean, he's… the Secretary… 

Correspondent:  Wait.  Oh, good.

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General is back in the office.  He's in the office today.  He did follow the New York City regulations to stay at home for two weeks.  So, he worked from his, from the residence for two weeks.

He'll be in the building.  My expectation is that he will deliver his General Assembly speech in person from the General Assembly.  Obviously, as we understand it, the vast majority of Heads of States and Governments and… will address by video, but the Secretary‑General and my information is that the President of the General Assembly will do the same. 

We expect to have two events coming up with the Secretary‑General for you.  One is a press conference, his pre-GA press conference, on the 16th of September.  Our aim is to have it here in this room with a pool of reporters physically present.  That may change depending on the health guidelines, but we're very much working towards that end.  And, to that end, we will need the assistance, your assistance in order to create some sort of a pool so we're not in the business of choosing, and then the rest of you can connect via video. 

And there will also be another event more focused on climate here on the 9th of September for the launch of the annual World Meteorological Organization report with [WMO Secretary-General] Professor [Petteri] Taalas, which the SG will join.

Question:  Steph, just the second part of that question, you were so kind to give us information about the ventilation system at UN Headquarters.  The protocol is compiling the list right now of speakers for the twenty-second September general debate.  Does the Secretary‑General have a view of how many Heads of State may, or Government or Foreign Ministers may attend in person, if they so choose, since there's not any prohibition…

Spokesman:  The whole point is that if they so choose.  We have no information to share now.  Obviously, a lot of those discussions will have to be bilateral discussions between Member States and the Host Country in terms of health regulations and quarantine.  A lot of things have to be worked out.  Some of those issues don't involve the UN, per se, but, if a Head of State shows up and wants to speak, it's their United Nations and they will do that.  But there is, obviously, a lot of logistical and health and security issues that will also have to be dealt with the Host Country authorities.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  You're welcome.  All right, any more waving hands or, if you don't have video, open your mic.  All right.  Abdelhamid, and then we'll go back to Ali in the room.

Question:  I hope you hear me, Stéphane.  My question is on procedure.  Is MALU now functioning and accreditation and renewal of accreditation is working now, normally?

Spokesman:  I think you have to talk to Tal, but I think, in terms of resident correspondents, there's no issue if you need to come in.  Non‑resident correspondents will have to contact MALU and give their names ahead of time.  But there is no, and Tal's in the room, so he's going to correct me as I speak, but there are no open accreditations just for the GA at this point. 

Iftikhar.  Oh, and then… sorry, then Ali.  I'm so used to the virtual world.  Go ahead, Iftikhar.

Question:  Okay, thank you, Stéphane.  I missed a part of your briefing and I’d like to… whether you addressed today's devastating flash floods in Afghanistan, which has killed around 87 [inaudible] people and damaged 200 houses.  As also, the Karachi situation because of rain is deteriorating and casualties growing.  Any comments?

Spokesman:  No, I had a whole note on that in the beginning, basically outlining that we are in Afghanistan working with our partners supporting the local authorities in their efforts and that there's a big need for food, for housing and also repair to damage to water and electricity plants. 

Mr. Barada. 

Question:  Thank you again, Stéphane.  Peaceful protesters still under attack in Lebanon, including by lethal force from the security forces, and also journalists are under attack in so many different ways by the political leaders in Lebanon.  I wonder whether you have anything to say about this specific issue.

Spokesman:  It is critical that people everywhere, whether in Lebanon or anywhere else, be allowed to demonstrate, express themselves freely and peacefully.

We have heard, and I think the people of Lebanon have a lot to express, as Mr. [Jan] Kubiš and others have said.  They need to be allowed to do that in a peaceful manner.  Security forces, as anywhere, need to show restraint and in, and guarantee people's right to peaceful demonstration.  And journalists should not be harassed for doing their job, in Beirut or anywhere else in the world.

Okay.

Correspondent:  Steph.  It's… hi, it's Gloria.

Spokesman:  Gloria, and then Dulcie.

Question:  Okay, thank you.  A lot of the Heads of State don't want to send in a video because it would be five days old, and they're concerned that it wouldn't be up to date because any speech they make involving their country should be to the minute.  Would it be possible for these Heads of State to Zoom in any way?  Will there be a Zoom session where those Heads of State who prefer to Zoom could be Zooming with the General Assembly?

Spokesman:  I… my understanding is that people will have to submit videos in advance.  Maybe if they don't do it five days, whatever.  But the… I think we've all seen in our lives the difficulty and the challenges of having a Zoom call with even three people.  I cannot imagine having a Zoom call with 193 permanent members and 2 permanent observers in different languages in different time zones.  I think it would make for a wonderful Saturday Night Live skit.

Dulcie.

Question:  Yeah.  Did you say the PGA… the new PGA is giving a press conference on 16 September at the UN?

Spokesman:  No.  I… what I said is that the old Secretary‑General, or the current Secretary‑General, is doing that.

Question:  The old… how old?

Spokesman:  Yeah, don't tell him I said that.

Question:  Okay.  But the new PGA, when does he officially start?

Spokesman:  I think it's the… the official start is a week before the high‑level debate is the new session.  Our colleague, Brenden Varma, is, will be his Spokesperson for the coming year, so, you're free to contact him at varmab@un.org for any questions.

I can say it was truly a pleasure to see all of you.  It was a miracle that I actually managed to fit into a suit and remembered how to tie a tie this morning.

But we're, here we are.  We're going to do this again tomorrow, and then we'll resume a bit…

Correspondent:  Okay, so…

Spokesman:  … later.  We wanted to try this… yes, Dulcie, go ahead.

Question:  Who's the director of communications for the new PGA?

Spokesman:  The Spokesperson is Brenden Varma.  I don't know…

Question:  Yeah. 

Spokesman:  …if there's a director of communications or if he also holds that title, but he deals with the media.

Correspondent:  Okay.

Spokesman:  We'll send you the, we'll send an email out with his contacts.

Correspondent:  Okay.  Thank you. 

Spokesman:  Okay.  Hasta la vista, hasta mañana.  Masks on.  Here we go.  All right. 

For information media. Not an official record.