13 November 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.

**Western Sahara

All right.  Good afternoon.  I will start off with a statement on Western Sahara that you have been asking about.  In recent days, the United Nations, including the Secretary‑General, has been involved in multiple initiatives to avoid an escalation of the situation in the Buffer Strip in the Guerguerat area and to warn against violations of the ceasefire and of the serious consequences of any changes to the status quo.  The Secretary‑General regrets that these efforts have proved unsuccessful and expresses his grave concern regarding the possible consequences of the latest developments.  The Secretary‑General remains committed to doing his utmost to avoid the collapse of the ceasefire that has been in place since 6 September 1991 and he is determined to do everything possible to remove all obstacles to the resumption of the political process.  The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) is committed to continuing implementing its mandate and the Secretary‑General calls on the parties to provide full freedom of movement for MINURSO in accordance with its mandate.  That statement is being shared with you electronically as we speak.


The Deputy Secretary‑General is in Mali for a second day.  This morning, she travelled to Mopti, in central Mali, where she visited the project called “Femmes engagees,” which provides training and promotes women’s economic empowerment.  She had discussions with some of the women who benefited from the project that is supported by the United Nations.  She also toured the project site, including stands of some of the products emerging from women entrepreneurs.  Later in the day, in Bamako, she visited the UN Medical Care Camp, outfitted as a COVID‑19 clinic.  She also met with UN staff and had exchanges with a group of partners, including women and young people.  In a few minutes, she is scheduled to meet with the Vice‑President of Mali on the unfolding inclusive transition and development process.  Tomorrow, she will travel to Sierra Leone.


Turning to Ethiopia, the UN Acting Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Pramila Patten, and the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, Karen Smith, have expressed deep concern over reports of escalating ethnic tensions in Ethiopia and recent military clashes in the Tigray region, in which many civilians have allegedly been killed.  The two have received reports of incidents of ethnically and religiously motivated hate speech, incitement to violence and serious human rights violations — including arbitrary arrests, killings, displacement of populations and the destruction of property in various parts of the country.  They strongly condemned reports of targeted attacks against civilians based on their ethnicity or religion.

The two senior officials noted that stigmatization of certain ethnic groups, including the Tigray, Amhara, Somali as well as the Oromo, among others, has significantly contributed to ethnic intolerance in the country.  The United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect stands ready and offers its support to the Ethiopian authorities and relevant stakeholders to counter and address hate speech and prevent incitement to violence in the country.

Meanwhile you saw the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, also expressed her increasing alarm at the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Ethiopian region of Tigray.  She warned that if Tigray regional forces and Ethiopian Government forces continue down the path they are on, there is a risk this situation will spiral totally out of control.  She said that, while the details of the alleged mass killings reported by Amnesty International in Mai‑Kadra in south-west Tigray have not yet been fully verified, there should be a full inquiry.


And turning to Mozambique, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed its concern about the worsening security situation, which we’ve been flagging.  According to UN estimates, violence by armed groups in the Cabo Delgado province has uprooted at least 355,000 people since 2017.  Humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR, have provided food, water, and hygiene services but more needs to be done urgently due to new arrivals in the Pemba area.  Access to some areas remains limited due to violence and insecurity, they added.  And the High Commissioner for [Human Rights] also expressed herself on the situation, calling on all actors to take urgent measures to protect civilians in the Cabo Delgado province, saying the situation is desperate, both for those trapped in conflict‑affected areas — with barely any means of surviving — and for those displaced across the province and beyond.  And that statement was shared with you.


A quick update from our humanitarian colleagues on the Asia‑Pacific region, where a series of tropical cyclones have devastated areas in the Philippines, Viet Nam, Cambodia, and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic since early October.  In support of those Governments’ response efforts, we along with our partners are seeking $95 million to help nearly 675,000 people in need.  Some 32.5 million people have been impacted and more than 2.7 million people in the Philippines, Viet Nam, and Cambodia are in urgent need of assistance.  They need water, sanitation, access to health care, as well as shelter, food, education, and support to help rebuild their lives and livelihoods.


The Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, launched today the UN COVID‑19 health facility at the Nairobi Hospital, which has been built in record time, taking only four months.  The 100‑bed facility is a model of public‑private partnership where the UN joined with the Government and the Nairobi Hospital to respond to the pandemic and treat humanitarian workers and others.  The Secretary‑General said that Nairobi holds a special place for the UN as it provides operation services for over 150 countries, making it a destination of choice for the emergency medical treatment for all humanitarian workers across Africa.


A new report released today by our friends at United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), also in Nairobi, and their partners, says that conserving 30 per cent of land in strategic locations could safeguard 500 gigatons of carbon stored in vegetation and soils — that’s half the world’s vulnerable terrestrial carbon stocks — and reduce the risk of extinction of 9 out of 10 threatened terrestrial species.  More online.


On Tuesday, the Sanitation and Hygiene Fund, a new financial mechanism to drive billions of dollars into the sanitation sector, will be launched.  The Deputy Secretary‑General will speak at the event and will point to the need to dramatically scale up investments to reach everyone with sanitation.  The event will be moderated by broadcaster Zeinab Badawi.

**Senior Personnel Appointment

A senior personnel announcement:  today, the Secretary‑General is appointing Ms. Khalida Bouzar of Algeria as the next Assistant Secretary‑General and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  She succeeds Mourad Wahba, who is currently serving as the Associate Administrator ad interim at UNDP, and Sarah Poole of the United States, who is currently serving as Officer‑in‑Charge of the Regional Bureau for Arab States.  Ms. Bouzar comes to us from the International Fund for Agricultural Development where she’s been there since 2012.  More online.

**Peacekeeping — COVID‑19

A quick update from Lebanon where our peacekeeping colleagues — excuse me, Lebanon and Kosovo — on what our peacekeeping colleagues are doing to help support local authorities during the pandemic.  This week, peacekeepers in Lebanon provided personal protective equipment and medical supplies to social development centres in South‑East Lebanon that will benefit 17 villages.  Meanwhile in Kosovo, the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) there, along with United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and local NGOs (non‑governmental organizations), organized a competition entitled “UNited Youth vs. COVID—19”.  The event aimed to foster youth‑led solutions to many pandemic‑related challenges through intercultural and inter‑ethnic dialogue and cooperation, combating stereotypes, improving economic empowerment and inclusion of youth with disability.

**Noon Briefing Guest Monday

On Monday, we will have a guest, the President of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Mr. Munir Akram, who is also, as you know, the Permanent Representative of Pakistan to these United Nations.  Edie, and then James.

**Questions and Answers

Correspondent:  Steph, the Polisario chief has sent an urgent letter to the Secretary… oh, come on.  The Polisario chief has sent an urgent letter to the UN Secretary‑General, and their ambassador has stated on television that "It's the UN's duty to intervene urgently to stop this aggression against the Sahrawi people."  In the statement that you just read, I did not hear a response to that request.

Spokesman:  I haven't seen the letter, and I can't confirm at this point that it's been received.  What I can tell you is that, whether it's the Secretary‑General, other senior officials, they have been working tirelessly over the past few days in order to avoid this situation, which is a… of which the consequences can be grave.  We have been, from this podium, expressing our concern at the situation in Guerguerat for quite some time.  And I think the Secretary‑General, as he says in the statement, I think, is… regrets that the efforts that he's been putting in and others have not been fruitful, but the Mission will continue to implement its mandate.  A special civil‑military team from the Mission has been deployed on the ground in Guerguerat since the beginning of the crisis, and we've had military observers there also remain overnight.  We'll go to Célhia and then you, James.

Question:  Stéphane, 14 soldiers were killed by terrorist group in Burkina Faso.  It seemed that the African continent — going from Mozambique, Mali, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso — is afflicted by conflict.  What can the Security Council do to maybe not stop it but at least to try to resolve those conflicts?

Spokesman:  Well, I think… listen, whether the situation in Mozambique and in Burkina Faso are linked, I think that's a question for analysts.  I mean, we're very, very concerned about all these situations.  In Mozambique, where our human rights colleagues, our colleagues from UNHCR and Secretary‑General have been speaking out.  Our country team is on the ground in Cabo Delgado, are trying to address the devastating humanitarian situation.  As for the situation in the whole in the Sahel, I think it's something we've been talking about repeatedly.  One, this is one of the driving reasons why the Deputy Secretary‑General in the midst of a pandemic finds it critical for her to travel to different parts of the Sahel and to highlight this ongoing crisis, which is both a security crisis, a humanitarian crisis, and a development crisis.  Mr. Bays?

Question:  So, following up on Western Sahara, on the letter that Edie asked you about that you say you don't know whether you received or not, the letter says, "The fact that the military action comes on the eve of the engagement between the UN Secretary‑General and Polisario scheduled for today."  Now you say there's been an engagement in last few days.  Was there… what was set to happen today?  Was the Secretary‑General himself supposed to take part in some sort of virtual meeting?

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General has been making calls to the different parties, and his people on the ground have been involved.  I can't speak to the timing of what is going on.  I mean, it's up to the parties to address their motivation and to the timing.

Question:  Wouldn't this be a good time to have a personal representative?  When did the last personal representative quit?

Spokesman:  This would be a very good time to have a personal representative.

Correspondent:  It was 18 months ago.

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General has been working hard to find people who are willing to accept and people who are acceptable to the parties on the ground and to the Security Council.

Question:  But really, 18 months with an unfilled position, isn't that why you've now got the problems you've got?

Spokesman:  I share your frustration, and I think the Secretary‑General shares your frustration about not having a personal representative.  But as you well know, it is not a job as if he's hiring his special assistant, where he interviews someone he chooses and it's that easy.  It is, one could argue, one of the most challenging files to deal with.  So, you have to find people who are willing to accept the job, and it is also one that has to go through the regular process of envoys, and we've not been successful, but it's not been from lack of trying.  Abdelhamid.  I can see you wave.

Correspondent:  I have a follow‑up… one follow‑up on the question by Edie — as always, she took my question — and James.

Spokesman:  You need to be in the room.  I mean…

Question:  I know.  I should.  I should.  Okay.  My question is:  the statement of the Secretary does not point finger who violated the ceasefire line.  Could it be a little bit more elaborate so we know who violated what?  It's very vague, this statement.

Spokesman:  We have condemned and we condemn all violations of the ceasefire.  The Mission, as I mentioned, is in the area to conduct observations of the ceasefire.  All violations are reported to the Security Council.  I would refer you to the latest report of the security… Secretary‑General to the Security Council, which has a litany of violations, which are fairly well explained.  Okay?

Question:  Okay.  Can I… I have a second question?

Spokesman:  Yes, you can always get two.  It's… the price is the same.

Question:  Okay.  Thank you.  Two for the price of one.  Secretary of State… US Secretary of State [Michael] Pompeo is planning to visit the Golan Heights and a settlement next to the town of… in Palestine and occupied town of Al‑Bireh.  Isn't that a flagrant violation of international law?  And why the Special Envoy of the SG is silent about this forthcoming visit, which could happen in the next day or two?

Spokesman:  Well, we try not to comment on things that have not happened.  Our position on settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory and the illegality… their illegality stands unchanged.  Evelyn, and then we'll go to Edie.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  On Syria, they had a conference saying that western nations are preventing refugees from returning.  UNHCR boycotted the conference.  Is there any statement from them on the Syrian charges or from the Secretary‑General?

Spokesman:  Well, I would ask you to talk to UNHCR.  What I can tell you is that there was no boycott of the conference.  Our Humanitarian Coordinator, Imran Riza, attended the conference as an observer on behalf of the United Nations.  Okay?  Edie?

Correspondent:  Steph, Abdelhamid asked you who violated the ceasefire line in this latest incident, and you referred to past Security Council reports, which didn't really respond to his question about this specific recent action.

Spokesman:  I think we have seen, over the last few weeks, violations from both sides.  Yep.  Yes, Iftikhar?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  The situation… the High Commissioner for Human Rights has sounded an alarm about the situation in Ethiopia's Tigray region.  Is the Secretary‑General taking more steps… he has already offered his good offices, but what has been the reaction? Is he involved?

Spokesman:  As you said, the Secretary‑General has offered his good offices.  He's been in touch with the Prime Minister.  His envoy for the Horn of Africa remains in Addis and is in touch with various parties, and the Secretary‑General fully associates himself with the concerns expressed by the High Commissioner on the issue of human rights.  Okay.  I wish you a happy Friday, unless… nope… and I leave you to Brenden [Varma] before you can enjoy your weekend.

For information media. Not an official record.