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11 September 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 to you all, and a happy Friday to you.

After finishing my briefing and the questions, Reem Abaza will be here to brief on behalf of the President of the General Assembly.  As you know, this is her last briefing as Spokeswoman for the President of the General Assembly, as the new President will take over the seventy-fifth [session] with a new spokesperson, Brenden Varma.  I think we all agree that Reem has been absolutely fantastic during her job here, and, in fact, much, much nicer than me when faced with unpleasant questions.  So Reem, thank you for your great work over this past year and we hope to keep seeing you in some other capacity.

**Peacebuilding

In remarks to a virtual session of the General Assembly and the Security Council this morning, the Secretary-General discussed his 2020 review of the peacebuilding architecture.

He told Member States that, looking at the suffering around the world, we know that the human and financial cost of focusing primarily on crisis response is unsustainable.

He said that at the centre of his 2020 Report is the conviction that multidimensional, integrated and whole-of-society responses are vital to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century and leave no one behind.

He added that despite this progress, adequate, predictable and sustained financing for peacebuilding remains a critical challenge.  His remarks have been made available to you.

**Afghanistan

Today, the Special Representative and Head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Deborah Lyons, said that the UN family in the country welcomes the upcoming face-to-face peace talks between Afghan parties in Doha, Qatar.  She stressed that the suffering of the Afghan people has gone on for far too long.

Ms. Lyons said that tomorrow’s opening event can be the start of something truly momentous and negotiators from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban have a unique opportunity to save the lives of many of their compatriots and to lift the country out of poverty and misery.

Ms. Lyons wished them every success and emphasized that the UN will be there to support them, as required.

While the ultimate goal of the talks is to silence the guns forever, [an immediate and unconditional reduction] in violence would create a more conducive environment for constructive talks, she added.  In the context of the health and economic challenges posed by the COVID-19 virus, poverty and natural disasters, a pause to the fighting would enable critical humanitarian aid to reach the millions that require assistance across Afghanistan.

**Security Council

Security Council members met in a closed video teleconference session this morning on Myanmar.

Council members were briefed by the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener; the High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi; and Kanni Wignaraja, the [UN Development Programme’s] Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific.

**Greece

Turning to the situation in Greece, the Secretary-General, in a tweet posted last night, said that he has been following the devastation from the fire at the Moria camp on the island of Lesvos.  He added that the solution lies in caring for all people affected, especially the most vulnerable, starting with transferring the population to the mainland.

The initial fire broke out on 8 September causing extensive damage to thousands of shelters for asylum seekers and common areas.

Today, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that more fires were reported on 9 September, as well as yesterday.  The latest fires have affected the adjacent fields next to the Moria Reception and Identification Centre, destroying what remaining accommodations were still available.

While no casualties have been reported to date, the fires have now left 11,500 asylum seekers without adequate shelter, sleeping on streets, fields and beaches on the island.  Among them are 2,200 women and 4,000 children.

The UN Refugee Agency warned that the coronavirus pandemic is also adding to an already desperate situation.  UNHCR has been offering support to Greek authorities to help protect and assist the impacted asylum seekers.

**Mexico

The [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)] and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) today condemned the murder of journalist Julio Valdivia Rodríguez in the state of Veracruz in Mexico.

He worked as a correspondent for a newspaper in the border region between the states of Veracruz and Oaxaca.  Mr. Valdivia Rodríguez is the fourth journalist to have been murdered in Mexico this year.

The human rights office and UNESCO call on the authorities to investigate his murder in accordance with the standards of due diligence so that this crime does not remain unpunished.  The Secretary-General lends his voice to this condemnation and, as you know, he has repeatedly spoken out on this issue, stressing that all journalists should be able to do their work freely and in safety, without fear of death or harm.

**COVID-19 — Cambodia

On Cambodia, we have an update on what our colleagues in the UN team there, led by Resident Coordinator Pauline Tamesis, are doing to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UN and the Government are working together to help the poorest households, rolling out a cash transfer scheme that will help an initial group of more than 600,000 people living below the poverty line.  We have provided 1,700 tablets to authorities to track these transfers and identify health, nutrition and educational needs.  This has led to cash transfers to include pregnant women and households with children below the age of 2.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, and UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) are helping the Government with distance learning for the more than 3 million students who are out of school due to the pandemic.  Educational programmes are being broadcast on official channels and over social media networks, with more than 1 million views.  The UN’s work on education also includes sign language, braille and radio programmes for multilingual education.

**Cambodia

And, on a separate issue on Cambodia, the UN human rights office today expressed its concern over the recent arrests of human rights defenders.  [OHCHR] calls on the Government to immediately and unconditionally release people detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.  It also calls on the Government to end intimidation of civil society actors.

**Palestine

Turning to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the Humanitarian Coordinator there, Jamie McGoldrick, said that the Israeli authorities’ policy of demolishing Palestinian-owned structures has continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic, undermining many people’s access to livelihoods and services.

In a statement issued yesterday, he said that, from March to August of this year, 389 Palestinian-owned structures in the West Bank were demolished or confiscated.  That is an average of 65 per month, the highest average in four years.  More than 400 Palestinians have been left homeless due to these demolitions.

**Sudan

On Sudan, which saw torrential rains and floods this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) said today that it is providing surgical supplies and medicine.

Nearly 30 health facilities were damaged, although this has not led to a major interruption in services.

WHO said that Sudan’s health system continues [to suffer] from years of underfunding, staff shortages, weakened infrastructure, and the lack of equipment, essential medicines and supplies.

Together with the Government and its partners, WHO has identified health needs and responded to disease alerts, including diarrhoea, measles, COVID-19, and others.  More information online.

And that is it from me.  Before we turn to Reem… bear with me two seconds.

**Questions and Answers

All right.  Oh, James Bays with a week’s worth of questions, I have no doubt.

Question:  I’ve got three, if that’s okay.  So, first to pick up on one of the things that you were just talking about, Afghanistan and the forthcoming talks between the Government and the Taliban, you said what the SRSG’s (Special Representative of the Secretary-General) view was.  Can I ask you about the Secretary‑General’s view on the situation?  Given that it’s 19 years since US troops arrived, a country that’s had 40 years of conflict, with that historical perspective, how does the SG see this moment and the chances for peace?

I think you might have frozen.

Spokesman:  James, I have to tell you, James, while you were away, things were working absolutely perfectly.  We had sound; we had video, but I’m just disappointed you didn’t use your time off to get a haircut, but anyway, go ahead.  Let’s try again.

Question:  Do you want me to ask the question again?

Spokesman:  Yes, please, if you don’t mind.

Question:  Yeah.  So, 40 years of conflicts in Afghanistan, 19 years since the Americans arrived.  We heard what the SRSG says, but what does the SG think?  Given that historical perspective, how does the SG see this moment and the possibilities of the chance of peace?

Spokesman:  For him, I think the start of the negotiations are a major opportunity to achieve what has been the long‑held aspirations of the people of Afghanistan for peace.  It’s crucial that all Afghan leaders and members of the international community do everything possible to make the peace a reality.  We, obviously, stand ready to help.

I think, obviously, one of the… there are many critical issues that will have to be looked at, but I think one that always needs underscoring is to ensure that the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan are not overlooked and that they have… their voices, their rights and their lives are respected and protected.

The Secretary‑General will be speaking to the Afghan talks in Doha via pre-recorded video message, and we will share with you an embargoed version of the message, which will be embargoed till some point overnight.

Question:  The second question regards Libya, and there is now a new draft resolution for the UNSMIL (United Nations Support Mission in Libya) mandate, which looks like it’s going to be put to a vote early next week.  It is suggesting a formula that maybe will break the deadlock on this issue.  As you know, the US have been wanting to divide the roles in two, and now they’re suggesting there will be a Special Envoy who concentrates on mediation but, under his authority, there will be a day‑to‑day coordinator.

One, are the Secretariat happy with this compromise measure?  And number two, now that it looks like there is something potentially moving forward, do you have a new candidate for the Special Envoy role?  And do you hope that now can be filled very quickly?

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, we, obviously, are guided by whatever emanates from the Security Council chambers.  We do understand there will be a new mandate with possibly a new structure.  The Secretary‑General will act upon it.  The issue of leadership is one that we hope will be solved quickly.

In the meantime, Stephanie Williams remains firmly in charge of the Mission.

Your third question.

Question:  Third and a final question.  I’m crediting the reporting of PassBlue on this one.  The UN General Assembly speakers list, you have to wait… despite this gender equality being one of the main themes of this GA and of the UN in general, you have to wait 53 speakers for a woman speaker, none on the first day of the general debate.  Is the Secretary‑General happy with that?

Spokesman:  Well, I think the Secretary‑General and the UN is… various UN agencies have always called for more women in leadership positions.  It is not, as you well know, for the Secretary‑General, A, to establish the speakers list… and, most importantly, to decide who is the Head of State, Head of Government, Foreign Minister of each country.  It is clear that the world would benefit from greater representation of women at the highest levels.  We’re not there.

For his part, the Secretary‑General, I think, has pushed through very audacious and strong push on gender equality.  And as you know, at the leadership level at the UN, we do have full… we have gender parity.  Welcome back, James.

Evelyn, and then Ali.

Question:  Yes.  Hi, Steph.  Is there any word on 9/11?  It’s the nineteenth anniversary today, and we’re all in New York.

Spokesman:  No, I mean, it’s… very much aware of the nineteenth… marking of the nineteenth anniversary of the Twin Tower [attacks].  I think, for the UN, it’s both personal and professional in a sense.  All of us who work here, whether staff members, diplomats and journalists, are also New Yorkers.  Many of us were here on that day.  I know of a number of colleagues who lost loved ones during the attack.  So, it’s a sombre day, a day of commemoration.

And globally, it was also… it marked the start of a new world, so to speak, but we did see, I think, tremendous global solidarity here at the UN in the days… in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and we saw the world speaking in one voice against terrorism.

Okay.  Ali?

Question:  Thank you.  Thank you, Steph.  I have a question on Lebanon… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Are you on a boat?  [laughter]

Question:  I wish.

Spokesman:  Yeah, yeah.

Question:  So, yesterday, there was a huge fire at the very port that witnessed the huge explosion, and there is a lot of damage, including, they say, evidence but also some assistance came from all over the world to Lebanon were vanished.

I wonder whether you have information about whether the UN aid sustained any damage or anything.  And what would you say about just erasing the evidence from what possibly could be a crime scene?

Spokesman:  No.  I mean, listen, we’re aware of the secondary fire that broke out.  As far as I know, we have no information as to the source of it or what could have happened.  We’ve… we’re aware of a number of different theories, but I have no… we have no forensic information, so to speak.

Our work in Lebanon continues.  I think, as we outlined yesterday, we’re continuing to help the people of Beirut, all of the people regardless of whether they’re citizens, refugees or migrants, and we will continue to do that.

Question:  Was there any damage to UN aid?  And I have another question.  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  I’m not aware.  None has been reported up to me.  Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but none’s been reported.

Question:  Uh‑huh.  And my other question is about the rising tension in the Eastern Mediterranean and whether the United Nations or the Secretary‑General has anything to say about what’s happening there.

Spokesman:  Not that I’ve… nothing more than what I said last week, that we’ve been in touch with the various parties, and we very much hope that these current tensions will be solved through diplomatic channels.

We’ve noted there’ve been direct talks between the Turkish and Greek representatives under the auspices of NATO, and we hope this dialogue will continue in a positive atmosphere.

Okay.  Abdelhamid, then Edie.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  First, a follow‑up to my question yesterday about Israeli violation of Lebanese airspace by a drone, and you said you would get back to me about it, and then I have another question.  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Okay.  What I can tell you is that, yesterday, around 5:20 p.m. local time, I assume, the Lebanese Armed Forces informed UNIFIL (United Interim Force in Lebanon) that it had shot down a drone it said was coming from Israel in the general area of Ayta ash Shab in southern Lebanon.  A UNIFIL team visited the site and inspected the drone that the Lebanese Armed Forces had claimed to have downed.

UNIFIL is currently following up with the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) to confirm the identity of the drone in question and has launched an investigation into the incident.

Go ahead.

Question:  Stéphane, about the Saudi courts which issued the sentences about those guilty of killing [Jamal] Khashoggi, and they said the case is closed.  It didn’t satisfy international standards.  You know, the statement of Agnès Callamard and the statement of Mr. [Rupert] Colville, the Spokesman for UNHCR [sic].  My question is not hypothetical; it’s procedural.  Suppose Turkey came up to the Secretary‑General with a demand to investigate it.  What would…

Spokesman:  Sorry.  Say again.

Question:  Suppose Turkey, now, requested an international investigation and submitted an official request to the Secretary‑General.  What would be the response of the Secretary‑General?

Spokesman:  Look, the fact is we have never officially received any request for an official investigation from any country on this.  Should one be received, it would be studied, and we would have to see exactly what it says and what it’s asking.  So, I think we’ve… I’ll leave it at that.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Edie?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  I have a couple of questions also.  First, does the Secretary‑General have any comment on Syria reporting Israeli air strikes near Aleppo?  Apparently, the Syrians say these have been going on in recent weeks.

Spokesman:  Listen, we… I have no specific information on these reported air strike.  I think our message to the parties is the same, is that what Syria needs is a re‑commitment by all the parties and those who have an influence over the parties to peaceful… to the political dialogue led by the UN.  But as far as these reports of air strikes, I have nothing… I have no specific information on those at this point.

Your next question.

Question:  On Myanmar, you told us who briefed.  We didn’t get any indication of what they might have said.  I realize this is a closed meeting but Myanmar is a major issue and…  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  I understand.  Let me see what we can squeeze out and share with you.

Question:  Okay.  And, thirdly, can you remind us when the Secretary‑General’s pre‑UNGA (United Nations General Assembly) press conference is going to be?  And is the UN going to be putting out a compiled list of side events?

Spokesman:  Yes.  The list… we’ll see what we’ll share with you what we can.  It will not be a long list.

On the press conference, so is there… and we’ll send out an email with all the information.  The Secretary‑General will be in the press briefing room on the 16th of… on Wednesday next week for his big pre‑GA press conference.  If you’re inter… we will have… we are capping the limit of journalists in the room at 10 with masks.  Please contact UNCA (United Nations Correspondents Association), as they are coordinating the access.

We expect the Deputy Secretary‑General to be with us the next day to talk about the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) moment and the SDG‑related issues coming to the GA, and we’re trying to also organize some sort of background briefing for you guys on the Secretary‑General’s speech, which he’ll deliver on the 22nd, and there will also be an embargoed press briefing at some point next week by Fabrizio Hochschild on the UN75 and the results of the survey.  The results will be released on the 21st, but we’re organizing a briefing for you ahead of that.

And just so you know, I will be doing briefings remotely Monday and Tuesday.  There will not be a noon briefing on Wednesday.  I will be in the building on Thursday and then back remotely on Friday.  And then next week, on Monday, I will probably brief, and then during the first couple of days of the GA, we will not be briefing, and that’s it.

Iftikhar, and then Ben and… yes, Iftikhar and then Ben.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  My question on Afghanistan was asked by James, but may I ask you whether any UN representative will be physically present in Qatar to monitor intra‑Afghan dialogue?

Spokesman:  Yes, the Special Representative of the Secretary‑General will be in Doha.  She will not be at the table, as this is not a UN process, but she will be able to monitor the talks.  But she will be in Doha.

Ben, if you don’t mind, I skipped over Ibtisam, and I’d like to hear from her.

Ibtisam?

Question:  Yeah, thank you, Steph.  So, my question is about Egypt.  Human Rights Watch issued a long report today about a case of gang rape in which the victim is being accused… the part of the Human Rights is saying that the Egyptian authorities have arrested the witnesses to the gang rape after encouraging them to come forward instead of prosecuting… instead of protecting them and prosecuting the attackers.  The case against the witnesses and the smear campaign against them and the rape survivor send a chilling message to survivors of sexual violence.  The report says that they can go to prison if they report sexual violence.  Do you have any comment or statement about that?

Spokesman:  Look, I’ve just seen the Human Rights Watch report which you flagged to us, so we’re looking… and our colleagues at the human rights office, we’ve asked them to look into what’s clearly a very troubling report.  What I can tell you, as a matter of principle, because we’ve heard reports of these types of a reaction in many parts of the world and that, as a matter of principle, is that survivors of sexual assault need to be heard; they need to be protected, and they need to be encouraged to report cases, as well as witnesses to these attacks.

And that’s… the ability to come forward, either as a victim or as a witness, and be protected is really fundamental to the rule of law.  Anything that deters that, I think, is a challenge to a goal that we all share, which is equal protection under the law.

But we’ll try to get some details on that particular case.  [cross talk]

Question:  I have a follow‑up.  I… just to understand, to which extent such issues come up when… especially that we see partly, not only in Egypt, but in other countries, as you said, systematic or ill‑treatment of victims, racist too in other countries, to which extent these issues come up in meetings between the Secretary‑General and Head of States?  Because… yeah.

Spokesman:  Well, they… different issues come up in different meetings as appropriate, but this is an issue that the Secretary‑General has been very vocal about.  We have regular reporting from the Special Representative on sexual violence.  This also comes up regularly in human rights reports, in reports from UN-Women, from the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, so this is something that we always try to shine a light on and do not shy away from.

Mr. Evansky?

Question:  Thank you.  Just on the SG’s presser, what time is that going to be?

Spokesman:  Noon.

Question:  Okay.

Spokesman:  And he usually is on time, as opposed to me.

Question:  Okay.  You mentioned about the idea of 14‑day quarantine for leaders and delegations coming in, but is there some sort of rule that diplomats can bypass that and just visit for 24 hours?

Spokesman:  Any issues having to do between diplomats and the host country, that’s a question you need to ask the host country.  What I can tell you is, on the part of the UN staff, we have not asked for any derogation.  As you know, the Secretary‑General himself went to Portugal.  He came back, stayed two weeks in the residence.  A number of other colleagues that I… we work with every day, Melissa Fleming or others, come back and they follow the two‑week… they follow the quarantine.  So, we make it a point to follow the guidelines and the instructions from the host city, from the host authority.

We encourage, as we always do, the diplomatic community, the UN community here in New York, to follow the rules and guidelines of the host country.  But whether or not there’s a derogation, that’s a discussion that needs to be held between each permanent mission and the host country.

Stefano Vaccara?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I’m sorry I got late today, so probably this was… I don’t know if it was asked already or it was asked yesterday.  So, we found out that [Donald] Trump knew well before how dangerous the COVID‑19 was and how it could be spread and everything.

So, when exactly did Secretary‑General knew the kind of the same information than… that we know President Trump practically find out at the end of January?  Did the Secretary‑General find out exactly how dangerous was this new virus, before, after?  Can you give us a timing?

Spokesman:  No, I… listen, I’m not going to get into this Washington debate that’s ongoing.  What I can tell you is that the Secretary‑General has always been guided by the advice he received from the World Health Organization (WHO), which was advice that was shared publicly.

Question:  I’m sorry.  Now, just a… now, because… it’s not because I want you to comment on Washington or President Trump.  It’s just that the debate that is worldwide is that the leadership of the world, so not only in America, failed everywhere in making aware people how dangerous and how the virus… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General did not sit on any knowledge that he had about the severity of this virus that he did not speak to publicly.

Okay.  I think that comes to the end of our programming.  So, for one last time, I get to throw it over to Reem.  Reem, thank you again for your cooperation and have fun.

For information media. Not an official record.