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27 October 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.

**COVID-19

All right.  Just a little COVID update here for us at Headquarters.  As you may know, yesterday we were informed by a permanent mission that they had five positive cases among their staff.  The UN Medical Service immediately initiated contact tracing with the full cooperation of the permanent mission.  As of now, all in‑person meetings have been suspended for today.  I do expect a bit more information to be shared later this afternoon, and a note to our staff will also be going out shortly.

**Syria

Turning to the Security Council, Geir Pedersen, the Special Envoy for Syria, spoke to Council members via videoconference today from Beirut.  He described his recent visit to Damascus, including his meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Walid al‑Muallem.  He said he will seek to deepen his dialogue with the Syrian parties and key players in the months ahead in the reviewing where we stand on [Security Council] resolution 2254 (2015) and seeking to identify how best to develop a wider process.

Mr. Pedersen noted that Syria’s front lines have not changed in recent months and that the number of civilians killed during that period has, according to monitoring groups, been the lowest since 2011.  But he warned that the situation in Syria, including the involvement of foreign militaries in continues to be tense.

Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock also briefed the Security Council on the humanitarian crisis in the country.  He said that he was alarmed of the violence and insecurity affecting civilians and aid workers and he called for their protection, as shelling in front‑line areas in the north‑west, as well as air strikes in Idlib, have continued.  Mr. Lowcock also updated the Council on the humanitarian impact of the economic crisis, humanitarian access and the assistance being provided by humanitarian organizations across [Syria].

**Tanzania

Turning to Tanzania, which is preparing for general elections on 28 October.  In a statement we issued yesterday, the Secretary‑General called on all national stakeholders to ensure that the polls are conducted in an inclusive and peaceful manner.  He recalled that an inclusive electoral process and a broad effective participation of political parties and their candidates, particularly women, remain essential for safeguarding the progress made by Tanzania in consolidating stability, democracy and development.

The Secretary‑General urged all political leaders and their supporters to participate in this exercise peacefully and to refrain from violence.  He calls on the authorities to provide a safe and secure environment, which will allow Tanzanians to exercise their civil and political rights.

**Afghanistan

The Secretary‑General, in another statement we issued, said that he is following with great concern the violent incidents which have occurred in Afghanistan over the past several days.  These incidents have claimed the lives of 40 civilians and injured many others, many women and children.

The Secretary-General strongly condemns the suicide attack that targeted civilians at an education centre on 24 October in Kabul, which killed at least 25 civilians and injured 50 more, most of them young students.  He recalls that deliberate attacks against civilians are serious violations of international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes.  He said those who carry out these crimes must be held accountable and that we stand in solidarity with the people and Government of Afghanistan.

A couple, two other notes on Afghanistan, where our humanitarian colleagues inform us that heavy fighting that started on 11 October between the Afghan National Security Forces and a non‑state armed group is continuing near Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province, south of the country.  Local authorities initially estimate that 35,000 people were displaced.  Along with our humanitarian partners, we are still trying to verify these numbers, with nearly 9,700 displaced people confirmed to date.

The violence has stretched hospitals in the town to capacity.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 15 health facilities have been targeted, impacting thousands of people obviously.  We are closely coordinating with the Government and our partners on the ground to provide assistance to the people who need it.  Local authorities, through the support of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), continue to supply water in displacement locations.  Food aid is also being provided.  Overall, 6 million people had been reached with humanitarian assistance under the 2020 Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan since the beginning of the year.

And last note on Afghanistan:  a new report released by the UN Mission in the country (UNAMA) shows that the number of Afghan civilians killed and injured in the conflict has failed to slow since the start of the intra‑Afghan peace talks, yet the overall civilian casualty figures for the first nine months of 2020 dropped by around 30 per cent compared to 2019.  More information is online.

**Yemen

And in some parts of Yemen are showing acute malnutrition rates among children under 5 that are the highest ever recorded there, with more than half a million cases in southern districts.  That’s according to a food analysis released today by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP), along with some of our partners.

The analysis – which is for 133 districts in southern parts of Yemen that are home to 1.4 million children under the age of 5 – reveals a near‑10 per cent increase in cases of acute malnutrition in 2020. 

At least a quarter of a million of pregnant or breastfeeding women are also in need of treatment for malnutrition.  Experts warn the actual number is likely higher, as the drivers of malnutrition in Yemen have worsened in 2020.  In order to save lives and avert a further worsening of the situation, we are appealing for more than $50 million to urgently scale up nutrition programmes, including treatment for children suffering from severe acute malnutrition.  At the same time, funding is also needed to scale up food, water, sanitation and health programmes, including immunization.

**Armenia - Azerbaijan

In response to the continued escalation of conflict in and around Nagorno‑Karabakh, the World Health Organization today said that it is delivering shipments of medical supplies, consisting of trauma and surgical kits, to Armenia and Azerbaijan.  WHO said that emergency supplies arrived in Yerevan on 23 October and those destined for Baku are currently in transit.

The supplies include trauma kits, with each containing medicine and provisions necessary to ensure the post‑traumatic care of 100 injured people.  Provided to the ministries of health in Armenia and Azerbaijan, they are used across public health systems to deliver care to those in need.  Of course, we reiterate our call for an immediate cessation of hostilities in the conflict zone.

**Peacekeeping

Today, the Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, Jean‑Pierre Lacroix, joined with the African Union Commission Peace and Security Commissioner, Smaїl Chergui, arrived in the Central African Republic.  They will be joined there by the President of the Economic Community of Central African States Commission, Gilberto Veríssimo.  Their three‑day visit is intended to advance peace and stability in the country in the context of the upcoming elections, the first round of which are scheduled for 27 December.

They will meet with senior Government officials, political parties, civil society, and women’s groups to call for collective engagement to ensure the holding of credible and inclusive elections, as well as the implementation of the political agreement signed by the Government and 14 armed groups in February last year.

Mr. Lacroix, as you’ll recall, just wrapped up his visit to Sudan yesterday, where he took part in a tripartite meeting with the Government of Sudan and Commissioner Chergui and was joined by Atul Khare, the Head of the Department of Operational Support for the UN.  They discussed the support and cooperation of the African Union‑United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) as it draws down and how best the UN can assist as the peace agreement is implemented.

**Ecuador - COVID-19

Quick note from Ecuador, where our UN team there is led by Resident Coordinator Lena Savelli and is working with authorities to address the impact of the pandemic.  The team has been focusing on small and medium companies to keep them open and safeguard jobs.  The UN Development Programme (UNDP), UNHCR [United Nations Refugee Agency] and the UN migration agency (IOM) have launched a digital start‑up initiative that has reached over 120,000 businesses with guidelines on how to boost their capacity to deliver their products and services online.  This also targets migrant and refugee workers.

For its part, UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund] is co‑financing a $4 million initiative with the Government to work with authorities on recommendations for maternal care, delivery, post‑partum and contraception information, to meet the family planning needs of Ecuadorians.  And they’re also supporting the authorities’ response in the northern and southern borders, including in the Amazon region, mobilizing resources for testing kits, personal protective equipment for health officials, and training on sexual and reproductive health for local authorities, targeting half a million people.

**Global Foreign Direct Investment

Our friends at the UN Conference on Trade and Development, better known as UNCTAD, revealed in their latest report that global foreign direct investment (FDI) flows fell 49 per cent in the first half of 2020 as compared to last year.  This was due to the economic fallout from the pandemic.  Developed economies saw the biggest fall in FDI reaching an estimated $98 billion in the six‑month period – a decline of 75 per cent since last year.

**Climate

Our friends in Bonn at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change announced the winners of this year’s UN Global Climate Action Awards.  This year’s recipients range from the Caribbean’s only carbon‑neutral hotel in Aruba, to the world’s first platform fully dedicated to green bonds and the launch of the first all‑women solar team in Lebanon to challenge gender stereotypes in the male‑dominated construction sector.  More information online.

**Financial Contribution

And to end on a good note, Cameroon paid its regular budget dues in full, becoming the 131st Member State to do so.  Sorry.  A lot of stuff today.  James?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Yeah.  More on the cases at the Niger Mission.  Do we know whether the Permanent Representative has tested positive or anyone else from that Mission who has attended an in‑person meeting at the Security Council?  Because that would, obviously, make things much more serious.

Spokesman:  I am, at this point, unable to confirm the name of the mission, because it’s really up to them to come forward.  We’ve been in touch with them, and I expect something to be released from the permanent mission in question soon.  What I can tell you is that they have been cooperating fully with the Medical Service and have been in touch with us, and we’ve immediately launched the contact tracing.

Question:  So, just explain that to us, the contact tracing.  Clearly, the Niger Mission to the UN ‑ you won’t confirm it, but that’s where it is ‑ is not on site here.  So, that, I assume, is the responsibility of the City of New York.  How does this mesh together…?

Spokesman:  Sorry.  Let me backtrack.  We’re talking about the contact tracing for delegates that were in the building and attended meetings.  Obviously… so, we’re focussed on contact tracing within our community here.  Obviously, as everyone else does, people have a responsibility to the host authorities.  And we would encourage, as a matter of course, everyone to cooperate with those health authorities.  Madame, and then Edie.  Célhia?

Question:  Talking about those five cases, how come the UN does not check the temperature of anyone entering the building?  Would it be…

Spokesman:  No, I’m… listen, I will venture into a field in which I am not an expert, but I don’t… I think that would just give you a false sense of comfort.  It’s not a telltale… a lot of people are asymptomatic, so I’m not… it’s not an effective method.

Correspondent:  I have another question.

Spokesman:  Yes, please.

Question:  It’s about Afghanistan.  In light of the attacks, does the UN still think that it’s a good idea to include the Taliban in the Government?

Spokesman:  Well, let’s backtrack here.  There are intra‑Afghan talks.  It is up to the Afghan people to decide what their future will be.  I cannot predict what the outcome of the talks will be.  What is important for us is that whatever comes out of these talks guarantees that the gains… the development gains made by Afghan women, youth and other vulnerable groups are not erased, that we do not go backwards, that those rights are guaranteed.  Edie?

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  A few follow‑ups.  On Afghanis… on Afghan… well, on Pakistan, does the Secretary‑General have any comment on the apparent bombing at this madrasa in Peshawar that… today that killed 8 students and injured over 130 others?  And I have some more.

Spokesman:  Sure.  We, of course, condemn the attack.  We join the statement released by UNICEF a bit earlier today in which they condemned the attack.  And I think, as UNICEF said, the targeting… schools must never be targeted.  Schools always need to remain a safe environment.  We extend our condolences to the victims, wish a speedy recovery… send our condolences to the families of those who perished and wish a speedy recovery of those who were injured and stand in solidarity with the people and Government of Afghanistan… of Pakistan.  Excuse me.

Question:  And apparently, the Armenians and Azerbaijanis are still going at it despite the third ceasefire attempt.  Does the Secretary‑General have any reaction?

Spokesman:  Well, we continue to express our concern and, frankly, our frustration, I think, at the continued fighting, the reports of continued fighting.  As you mentioned, there were three agreements that were… three times, I mean, the parties agreed to a humanitarian ceasefire.  It is critical that they actually live up to what they’ve committed themselves to do.  What we need immediately is a ceasefire to ensure that humanitarian aid gets through.  If you’ll recall a few days ago, we flagged some numbers from WHO which said the cases of COVID‑19 had skyrocketed both in Armenia and Azerbaijan.  And the Secretary‑General’s been calling for a global ceasefire.  I mean, this is a prime example of humans continuing to kill other humans while the virus wins and… sorry.  Go ahead.

Correspondent:  No…

Spokesman:  No, I’m done.

Question:  And just as a follow‑up on the no in‑house meetings at UN Headquarters today, do we know how long this lack of any in‑house meetings will take place?

Spokesman:  My guess and my estimate is that we will continue for a few more days.  We had… there was a meeting just before I came in with all the relevant in‑house parties and Medical Service support, Conference Services.  So, we’re working on a way forward.  Obviously, whether or not meetings… all of this has to be done with the approval of Member States, and I’m sure Brenden [Varma] will have a few more words to say on that from the President of the General Assembly.  We have the General Assembly.  We have the Security Council.  We have ECOSOC [Economic and Social Council].  The Secretary‑General’s thoughts is that… excuse me.  The general… let me try… this has been a long… I think I hurt more than my finger on my bike.  For the Secretary‑General, it is of foremost importance that staff be safe, that delegates be safe, that you be safe, all those who are coming into the building.  I think our staff have done a tremendous job during the lockdown of continuing to support Member States in the meetings they’ve had, continuing to support the work that we do here, that enable us to have some… a minimum of in‑house.  So, today, the meetings will be virtual. We’ll see what happens in the next few days, but I… we should have clarity by the end of today.  Mr. Sato, and then we’ll go to the screen and then Carla.

Question:  Thank you. Follow‑up question. So, do you see any… the… the change of the footprint number in the UN premise from yesterday and today. [Cross talk]

Spokesman:  Oh, from yesterday and today?  I didn’t get… we get the screening numbers 24 hours later.  So, over the last two, three weeks, it’s been about 1,300, 1,400 number of swipes going in every day.  By the end of today or early tomorrow morning, I’ll have the numbers for today.

Question:  Do you hear any voice from the UN staff, some sense of worry about this case?

Spokesman:  Well, we’re, obviously, in touch with the Staff Union.  We’ve… our Medical Service has been in touch with them from early this morning.  We want to make sure that everyone is safe, that the work of the UN continues as it has.  So, as I said, we’ll have a bit more details later on.  I’m going to go to Benny.

Question:  Okay. Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, sir.

Question:  So, now that he had time to contemplate, has the Secretary… does the Secretary‑General, who took note of the agreement between Israel and Sudan, does he think it’s a good thing or a bad thing?

Spokesman:  I mean, I think if you read the statement that we issued, I think it has a very positive tone to it.  Carla.

Question:  Since my last question to you, Honduras has signed the nuc… the treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, and it’s now at entry‑into‑force stage.  Can you explain exactly what that means?  Because when I ask… you told me it would be a legal question.  I asked Mr. Klein, your friend and my colleague.  He said, basically, it has no impact.  And since the Nuclear Non‑Proliferation Treaty is… article 6 is being violated by all the nuclear powers ‑ I say this in all cynicism ‑ what actually… what is accomplished by this…

Spokesman:  I think the treaty itself is a very important message on the need for total elimination of nuclear weapons, and I think that’s reflected in what the Secretary‑General said.  Its most immediate effect is that, when it comes into force, which it has [on 22 January 2021; see below], is that the treaty will become binding international law for those States who have ratified it. Those States will also have to submit an initial declaration regarding any past or present nuclear weapons under their control within 30 days of the entry‑into‑force.  The Secretary‑General is very well aware of the general climate, and he’s consistently called for dialogue among Member States so that they may return to a common vision and a path leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons.  Despite the differences over the treaty itself, the frustrations and concerns that underlie it must be acknowledged and addressed.  In that spirit, he continues to support… he supports continued engagement between supporters and critics of the treaty.  And if I’m not mistaken, I think it enters into force on the 22nd [January].  It’s now just been ratified.  There’s a delay.

Question:  Is there…?

Spokesman:  Okay, James…

Question:  Has he made any comment about the fact that none of the party… none of the nuclear weapons…?

Spokesman:  I mean, as I said, I would refer to you the statement he issued.  I would refer to the past remarks he’s made on nuclear weapons.  And the Secretary‑General, as I said, is fully aware of the general climate and differing positions.  Mr. Bays?

Question:  You’ve made a number of references to the Medical Service here at UN Headquarters. The head of that Medical Service left early on in the pandemic.  Is that vacant… is that job still unfilled?

Spokesman:  It’s under recruitment, but it doesn’t mean that the head is vacant, so to speak.  We have an acting director, Dr. Bernhard Lennartz, who’s been fully engaged and doing a great job with his team.  He briefs the Secretary‑General every morning.  So, I mean, the work of the Medical Service continues.  Obviously, recruiting public health officials during this time is not an easy task.  Recruiting at the UN is never an easy task, as some may have observed.  But it doesn’t… in no way it means that the Medical Service is leaderless, on the contrary.  Okay. Toby and then Gloria.  Toby? Yes. And then I see you, Iftikhar.

Correspondent:  Sorry, Steph. I didn’t have a question, not me.

Spokesman:  Oh, good.  That’s good.  Don’t think of one.  [Laughter]  Iftikhar… Gloria, and then Iftikhar.

Question:  Okay.  Mine is the isolated remote indigenous tribes, are they at all affected by this virus, do we know?

Spokesman:  Well, I… from what I’ve read, I know the indigenous peoples are… especially, we’ve seen in different parts of South America and other places in the world, in different… in the Americas, in general, at high… are vulnerable and at high risk.  Iftikhar, and then Abdelhamid.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  My question was asked by Edie, but I want to know whether you will be issuing a formal statement on the blast in Peshawar, Pakistan?

Spokesman:  I’ll see if there is one, but I think I made the Secretary‑General’s position clear in the condemnation of this horrific attack on yet another educational facility.  We’ve seen those in Afghanistan.  We’ve seen them in Cameroon.  Wherever these schools are, they should never, never be a target.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have two questions.  When the French teacher Samuel Paty was assassinated, the Secretary‑General and the High Representative of Alliance of Civilization both, rightfully so, condemned the killing.  However, a few days later, two French Muslim women walking near Tower Eiffel, both were stabbed in front of their children on what is called a hate crime.  There was no statement from either… from neither.  And also, a mosque was ransacked by thugs in… near Paris, and the prayers were brutalized, and also there’s no reaction.  I mean, why in one case… I don’t want to compare the two crimes.  The two crimes are heinous.  But isn’t there should be some statement condemning the hate crimes, as well?

Spokesman:  We condemn hate crimes wherever and whenever they occur.  I think on this… and again, I hate to enter into a compare‑and‑contrast.  I don’t recall… there was no formal statement after the horrific killing of the teacher in Paris.  I was asked a question; I reacted.  You’re asking me a question on this; I’m also reacting and condemning any and all hate crimes, condemning attacks on religious facilities, on churches, mosques, synagogues.  We have repeatedly done that and so has the High Representative.  Okay. James Reinl.

Correspondent:  Hi there, Steph…

Correspondent:  I have a second question.

Spokesman:  Oh, go ahead, Abdelhamid.  You’re allowed.

Question:  Sorry.  Can you un‑mute me?

Spokesman:  No, go ahead.  You’re not muted.

Question:  Okay. My second question about Palestinian singer, Mohammed Assaf.  He was Goodwill Ambassador for UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] for some time.  He’s the winner of Arab Idol, and he came and performed here in the United Nations.  He used to cross the bridge to the West Bank and perform repeatedly.  He’s very popular, and he’s a nationalist, as well.  So, Israel revoked his permission to enter the Palestinian territory for no reason except that he sings sometimes for the cities of Haifa, Acre and Nazareth.  Is that a crime, in the view of the Secretary‑General?

Spokesman:  I have… listen, let me take a look.  I had not heard anything about… I remember the person in question, but let me take a look.  Okay.  I will leave the pod… oh, sorry.  James.  Sorry, sorry, sorry.  James Reinl, yes, and then I’ll leave for Brenden.

Correspondent:  Don’t forget about me, please.

Spokesman:  No, no.  Trust me.  You know I couldn’t.  As much as I can try, it won’t work.  Go ahead.

Question:  You can try. It’s a quick question on the Russian air strike on Turkish‑backed forces in north‑west Syria.  There’s been retaliation, ongoing violence today.  Mr. Pedersen mentioned it in the Council.  Has the SG been in contact with Ankara or Moscow about this?  Is there any message to the parties?

Spokesman:  The message to the parties is what Mr. Pedersen delivered.  I’m not aware of the Secretary‑General having contact with the parties on this specific issue.  We would… that would be something for Mr. Pedersen.  Okay.  Brenden, all yours.  And we will let you know if we will continue in‑person briefings here tomorrow by the end of the day.

For information media. Not an official record.