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27 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 morning and happy Thursday to you all.

**Syria

Just to note, on Syria, as you will have seen, we shared with you the information that, following additional testing and further medical advice regarding four earlier positive tests for COVID-19, the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria has been officially informed by the competent health authorities that the nature of those cases is such that the third session of the Constitutional Committee Small Body can resume its meetings, with full social distancing and related precautions in place.  Having consulted the Co-Chairs and committee members, the meetings resumed today at the Palais des Nations, of course, all being facilitated by Mr. [Geir] Pedersen and his team.

**Security Council

This morning, the Security Council held an open video teleconference on the humanitarian situation in Syria.  The acting Deputy [Emergency] Relief Coordinator, Ramesh Rajasingham, briefed the Council.  He told members of the Council that community transmission of COVID-19 in Syria is widespread.  Mr. Rajasingham said that the rising patient numbers are adding pressure to the fragile health system and that several health facilities have suspended operations due to capacity issues and to staff contracting the virus.  In Al Hol camp in north-east Syria, where people are already highly vulnerable, 12 health facilities had to suspend operations this month.  Between 6 and 10 August, eight children under the age of five died in the camp, from a range of conditions.  And in his remarks, Mr. Rajasingham also addressed the economic downturn; protection of civilians; humanitarian access; and what support humanitarian agencies have been delivering to people across Syria.

**COVID-19 — Remote Learning

And, in a new report released today by our good friends at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), that report shows that at least a third of the world’s schoolchildren were unable to access remote learning when COVID-19 shuttered their schools.  This represents 463 million children.  According to UNICEF, at the height of the nationwide and local lockdowns, around 1.5 billion schoolchildren were impacted by school closures.  The report outlines that limitations of remote learning expose deep inequalities in access.  Schoolchildren in sub-Saharan Africa are the most impacted, where at least half of all students cannot be reached with remote learning.

**COVID-19 — Data

And I have an update from our colleagues in our Development Coordination Office.  They tell us that there is a new data portal tracking the work of UN teams to tackle COVID-19 in 162 countries and territories.  The web portal http://data.uninfo.org is a public platform covering our work to respond and recover from the pandemic’s impacts, but also shows data from the health and humanitarian response led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and our humanitarian colleagues.  It is worth a look.  It is kind of a neat little map.  The portal shows that more than 100 UN teams have repurposed $2.44 billion to help Governments tackle the health, humanitarian and social and economic needs.  Nearly 80 UN teams are rolling out their plans to save lives and livelihoods, and more than 70 UN teams have mobilized funding to support countries, bringing an extra $1.15 billion from a range of sources, including the Joint SDG Fund and the UN’s “Recover Better Fund”, as well as other partners, and we have been updating you regularly on the work of those country teams.

**Latin America

Turning to Latin America, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, today urged the Organization of American States (OAS) to end its impasse on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights over the Commission’s executive leadership, stressing the importance of ensuring that the Commission’s independence, autonomy and effectiveness are not undermined.  The mandate of the current Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission, Paulo Abrão, officially expired on 15 August, after the OAS Secretary-General declined to renew it further.  Madame Bachelet said this is a very damaging situation which risks undermining the independence and effectiveness of the Inter-American Commission.  And she added, “this should not be about personal reputations, or political allegiances, or loss of face — it should be about working together to protect the human rights of hundreds of millions of people all across the Americas during a time of massive crisis.”  More information online.

**Human Rights Reports

Also, two other reports online from our human rights colleagues, one detailing the human rights violations in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, and the other one is a human rights report from the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI).  That warns that, despite promising steps by the current Government of Iraq regarding human rights violations committed in the context of demonstrations, accountability remains elusive.

**Secretary-General — Darbari Seth Memorial Lecture

And, as a reminder that tomorrow morning, at about 2 a.m., New York time, the Secretary-General will deliver the nineteenth Darbari Seth Memorial lecture at an event 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.  In his remarks, which have been shared with you under embargo, the Secretary-General will renew his call on G20 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 COVID-19, their decisions will have climate consequences for decades.  Just to be precise, the Secretary-General will deliver his remarks by pre-recorded video, given the time difference.

**Forthcoming Briefings

Tomorrow, we will be delighted to be joined by Reem Abaza, the Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly, and I will be back in my undisclosed location.  Next week, we may not brief every day given that we usually take a hiatus at the last week of August.  We will let you know what days we will be briefing and what days we won’t.  And that's it.  Madame?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Hi.  First, a clarification, then a question.  Clarification:  When four people tested positive initially at the beginning of the week, were those tests not positive or what changed that they could be there…?

Spokesman:  I think that this was pretty much outlined in their note.  I think they talked to the Swiss authorities, and they felt that, given the risks with the rest of… they could mitigate the risk with the rest of the delegations and that they could just move forward.

Question:  Without them, those four being there… oh, I see.  Okay, I misunderstood that.  Okay.  On Iran, Secretary of State Pompeo tweeted, in the last hour or so that the sanctions will snap back on 20 September.  I know that the Secretary‑General has deferred to the Council on this, but given that the rest of the Council has said otherwise and the United States is saying this, I'm wondering if he might weigh in on his opinion on whether or not the sanctions will, in fact, be in place.  Has he been asked by anyone to give a legal opinion or to get some advice on that?

Spokesman:  Ultimately, this will be a decision of the Security Council.  This is firmly in their court.  There are, obviously, as we all know and pretty openly, some diverging views.  The Secretary‑General's own actions will be inspired by what the Security Council decides, but we're… we will leave it at that.  Leave it at that before I…

Question:  Sorry, if I could, I don't mean to monopolize…

Spokesman:  Go ahead.

Question:  One other quick one.  The situation in the eastern Mediterranean, any contact with any of the parties there continue… given that's continue…?

Spokesman:  Definitely contacts at various levels.  We remain concerned about the heightened tensions, and we very much hope that dialogue will be initiated for all these parties to resolve their differences, aligned by what is in the UN Charter.  Let's go to some of our guests at home.  I think Edie… I'm trying to figure out here how we do this chat.  But, Edie, since you usually have a question, I will start with you.

Question:  Thank you very much, Steph.  I wondered whether the Secretary‑General has been keeping up or has spoken to anyone in Germany or Russia about the case of Alexei Navalny, who's still in a coma.  And secondly, President Putin said today that Russia would be willing to help Belarus, the Government, if needed, but they don't need it.  What's the UN's latest objections on…?

Spokesman:  On Belarus, we have stayed in contact with the authorities.  Our position remains the same, is that people need to be able to demonstrate peacefully, that the security forces need to show restraint.  And the Secretary‑General feels very strongly that no one should be arrested or convicted or any other procedures against them just for what they, for political thought or for expressing those political thoughts.  On what President Putin said, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals.  I'm not aware of any contacts for the, by the Secretary‑General with either Russian or German authorities on the case of Mr. Navalny.  All right?  Let's go back here in real life.

Question:  Honestly, my question was also referred to the Belarus.  So, I kind of have a bit of answer.  But, at the same time, do you have… like, protests in Belarus still going on.  People are still being arrested and still being beaten and people demanding free elections.  So, at the same time, Belarusian activists are protesting already two weeks in a row on weekends in front of United Nations Headquarters.  So, do you have… and obviously, they addressing their protests to the United Nations.  So, do you have… and obviously, they addressing their protests to the United Nations.  So, do you have any specific message for those people who still keep on coming and protesting in front of the United Nations?

Spokesman:  We always welcome people expressing themselves peacefully in front of the UN.  People do that on a regular basis with different grievances.  And whether people are demonstrating here or demonstrating in Minsk, they need to… they're exercising their right, and that right should be respected.  Okay, so, my chat function's not working, so, let's try the wave function.  If you… Iftikhar, go ahead and then Toby and then Rick, if that's Rick.  Iftikhar Ali, go ahead.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Do you have anything from UN humanitarian agencies about the devastating floods in Afghanistan and also in Karachi, which is battered by rain, with near 100 casualties?

Spokesman:  No, I have not… I gave an update yesterday on Afghanistan.  I think those assessments are still ongoing.  We're working with the local authorities to try to help.  Obviously, the biggest needs remain food, housing and then the issue of reconnecting access to electricity and water systems.  On Karachi, I don't have anything for you.  Let's see if there's another question in the room.  Yes.  Sato‑san, go ahead.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  So, we know Secretary‑General, getting to the domestic issue, but, again, that, in United States, there are… the black man was shot in Wisconsin just three months after the Mr. George Floyd case.  Investigation is going on, but this impact, not only to the civil society, but also sport, professional sports.  What does the Secretary‑General see this kind of racial issue happening again and again?

Spokesman:  Racism is something that needs to be addressed in every society, whether in the United States, whether… in any country, anywhere around the world, it is an issue and within organizations, including our own.  What is important is that the case that you refer to be fully investigated and that people need to also be able to express themselves peacefully, and whether that is through collective action, as we've seen through sports figures or other ways, that is their right.  People have a right to express themselves when they feel strongly about injustice.  But we're seeing the issue of racism come up again and again in many, many countries, and this is something that… there needs to be an open and frank dialogue on addressing not only the issue of racism but all the inequalities and injustices that flow from that everywhere.  Okay.  We'll go to Toby.

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  Just to follow‑up on that, does the Secretary‑General think that there's a particular problem with racism in the United States?

Spokesman:  The United States is not the only country in the world that needs to deal with the issue of racism.  I think, in one way or another, it is present in just about every country in the world and every society in the world.  It is not a particularly US problem.  It is a global issue.  Madame?

Question:  Will the Secretary‑General be speaking live in the UN General Assembly Hall on 21 September…?

Spokesman:  Yes, he will be.  Unless things drastically change between now and then, the Secretary‑General will be in person, given that he's in New York and given that he's in the building, he'll be in person speaking at the General Assembly.

Question:  That's 21 September?

Spokesman:  Yes, ma'am.

Question:  Okay.  So what is his theme?

Spokesman:  Well, there, the theme is still being worked on.  Obviously, it will centre around how an organization like the United Nations, marking its seventy-fifth anniversary, how do we reinvigorate multilateralism?  How do we get out of this pandemic while addressing inequalities and injustice and making sure that we come out of this a stronger world?  But I know the Secretary‑General and he's still very much tooling and noodling with his message and his speech.  We still have a bit of time.

Question:  So, theoretically, he would speak before President Trump speaks if he's… Trump is showing up, physically or not?

Spokesman:  Yeah, I mean, the order, I mean, the order will remain the same, at least with the Secretary‑General opening up and then Heads of States speaking.  Mr. Gladstone.  Rick?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  I had a question, too, about the Secretary‑General.  A couple of months ago, at his… in a briefing at a news conference, he said that he still hoped that there would be a meeting, a summit meeting of the members of the P5 for the General Assembly.  Does he still have that hope?  Is that no longer practical?  He said, I still hope that a summit of the P5 will be possible before the General Assembly.

Spokesman:  Yeah, we very… we continue to hope that it will.  The logistics of it, whether it's virtual or in person, that's something that those participants will have to work out.  But, I think, given the state of the Security Council, the state of the world, I think finding greater unity amongst the P5 would clearly benefit the work of the Security Council.  Okay, can we go back to the screen?  Joe, go ahead, and then Abdelhamid.

Question:  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, I can, Joe.

Question:  Okay.  Thank you.  Just going back to Iran and the snapback issue, the operative resolution 2231 (2015) does not require a consensus by the Security Council for the snapback to take effect.  So, in any event, what's… assuming there's no action, formal action by the Security Council which would be unlikely, and the Secretary‑General is asked for his opinion or legal analysis, which sometimes is done [inaudible], what [inaudible] would the Secretary‑General be able to take?  This is not a hypothetical, because the President of the Security Council said he's not going to take any action, and any resolution to try to reverse a snapback…

Spokesman:  I'm not saying it's… Joe, I'm not saying it's a hypothetical.  What I'm saying is that, at this point, this discussion is firmly within the Security Council.  There are differing views, it's not a secret.  The Secretary‑General's own actions will be inspired by whatever the Security Council decides.

Question:  So, if there's no formal decision on the resolution, then they'll be guided by the lack of any…?

Spokesman:  We will take things a few days at a time.  So, at this point, that's what I have to share with you.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  The ceasefire in Libya, as you know, was welcomed by both sides, the Tripoli Government and the Tobruk parliament.  It was welcomed by Egypt, by Qatar, by Turkey, Russia, Germany and the UN, but there is no progress.  And you keep… when we ask you, you keep saying Stephanie Williams is contacting all the parties, but it's almost now 10 days since the… both sides declared accepting a complete, comprehensive ceasefire, yet there is no progress.  What is going on now?

Spokesman:  Well, I think that's also a question you need to ask the parties.  Ms. Williams is the head of the UN Mission on the ground.  The Secretary‑General's Representative is there talking to everyone, trying to cajole, push, nudge, whatever word you want to use, everyone in the same direction towards a resumption of the talks under the 5+5 Military Committee as facilitated by the UN.  That is all that we have, and she will keep working towards that goal.  But, you know, we at the UN are not the ones with our fingers on the trigger.  We're not the ones sending troops.  We're not the ones violating the arms embargo.  There are parties on the ground.  There are parties in the region.  There are parties on a broader international level who all have influence on the parties on the ground, and we would like to see everyone work towards the same direction for the good of the people of Libya.  Okay?  Stefano.  Stefano Vaccara?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  One is a follow‑up on the [inaudible] when we talk about racism in America.  President Trump is going to deliver a speech tonight, and there is anything about the subject that the Secretary‑General would like to hear from the President of United States?  And also, in general, about also the policy for [inaudible] multilateralism or something yet to do with the foreign policy, there is anything that the Secretary‑General wish about the speech that come out before the, the following speech that he's going to deliver in…?

Spokesman:  Stefano… Stefano, how long have you been covering the UN?

Correspondent:  I'm… a long time.

Spokesman:  Okay, if you expect me or the Secretary‑General to wade into US presidential politics on the eve of the last night of one of the major party conferences, then you have a short memory, my friend.

Correspondent:  I know, but, Stéphane, I know, but I have still to try, because I know that you will say… you will say…

Spokesman:  I'm not criticizing you…

Question:  No, no, but you are so clever that you, even in making sure that your answer is very diplomatic, you will say something.  And then I… the last part is something I have to still ask, all the time.  Every week, I will be here asking.  Do you have any news about the death, about the cause of the death of Mario Paciolla…?

Spokesman:  As soon as I have something on that, I will, we will be able to share it with you.  I would like to.  Okay?

Question:  Not… so [inaudible] expect anything about racism in America, nothing, for tonight's speech?

Spokesman:  Stefano, I'm not going to get into it, but thank you for trying.  All right.  Any other hands waving?  Ah, Mr. Burns and Maria and then Gloria.  Okay.  Toby, then Gloria, then Maria.

Question:  Just a quick reference question.  What is the SG's position on Muslim re‑education in western China?

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General, I think, has made his position clear on the issue of what is going on in Xinjiang, both publicly and privately to Chinese authorities, and I'd refer you to what we've said before on the issue.  Maria?

Question:  Yeah.  Hi, Steph, good to see you in your natural habitat.  So, I have actually several questions.  First, I wanted to follow up on Mr. Alexei Navalny question.  So, SG didn't contact the Russian authorities or the Germans but, generally, does SG has, have a position on whether there was a need over investigation of this case?  And another one on Syria, today, United States representative raised concerns about outbreak of coronavirus in the Damascus region, and he called to grant access to the United Nations to collect statistics on the scale of pandemic.  So, I wonder if there is a mission of United Nations which is ready to go there and there was a problem with their access or theoretical possibility.

Spokesman:  Okay, on Syria, I think this is exactly what Mr. Rajasingham was talking about this morning.  So, I would refer you to his comments and our concern about the rapid rise of COVID‑19 cases throughout Syria.  On your first question, I would refer you to what I said last week regarding the case of Mr. Navalny.  Gloria?

Question:  Yes.  Are there any indications of high rank at all coming in from the UN since you announced that you would allow them to come if a Head of State wanted to come to speak?

Spokesman:  No, I'm not aware of any changes, but that's something to ask the President… the Office of the President of the General Assembly, but I'm not aware.  Okay?  Abdelhamid, were you waving for a question or waving goodbye?

Question:  Yes, yes.  No, I'm waving for a question.  A statement issued by Iran, Turkey and Russia criticizing the US for stealing the Syrian oil in north‑east Syria, are you aware of that?  And what is the position of the United Nations?

Spokesman:  No, I have not seen that… I have not seen that statement.  I will take a look at it and get back to you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Thank you, all.  We will see you tomorrow all remote, and enjoy the rest of the day.  Mask back on.

For information media. Not an official record.